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NHL, NHLPA spin their wheels amid talks about talks

How the NHL lockout reached a new level of dysfunction over a simple proposal.

Boston Bruins owner and lockout hawk Jeremy Jacobs, in happier times.
Boston Bruins owner and lockout hawk Jeremy Jacobs, in happier times.
Jim Rogash

It was a meeting that took three days to set up, borne of a brainstorm to jump-start the stalled NHL labor negotiations by infusing new voices into the mix. Yet the end result doesn't seem to have anywhere near the potential to carry a whole lot of pull in the ongoing lockout.

When the NHL and NHLPA broke up with negotiators after unsuccessful talks on Thursday, the NHL reportedly made an offer to have some of the owners who aren't part of the negotiating committee meet with a group of players, minus Gary Bettman and Don Fehr.

After a whole lot of back-and-forth over the worthiness of the exercise between the two sides, it finally came out Sunday that a small group of six owners will meet with six players on Tuesday in New York.

As it turns out, two of the owners who are going to be part of the meeting meant to infuse new blood in the process are already part of the NHL's negotiating committee: Murray Edwards of Calgary and Jeremy Jacobs of Boston. Ron Burkle of Pittsburgh, Mark Chipman of Winnipeg, Larry Tanenbaum of Toronto and Jeff Vinik of Tampa Bay will also take part.

Jacobs, who has reportedly rankled some with his hard-line style in the lockout, is certainly an eyebrow-raising choice. The biggest wild card could be Tanenbaum, whose Maple Leafs have probably more to lose than any other club should an entire season go away, but while Tanenbaum could be a voice of reason, he could also be there to show the owners' resolve in the whole process.

In a way, the talks to get this meeting encapsulated where the lockout is as a whole. Three days that likely would have been better put to use actually talking about the dispute were used figuring out to have a meeting that likely won't have any bearing on the lockout's outcome.

One of the biggest complaints the owners have had throughout this process is that they feel their message hasn't been properly filtered down to the players, a charge the NHLPA vehemently denies.

In return, the NHLPA feels that this meeting is an attempt to circumvent the leadership of Don Fehr, which, not surprisingly, the NHL denies.

In the end, what was supposed to help build a mutual trust that both sides are lacking at the moment turned into what the lockout has become: A lot of bickering over a small issue in the midst of a work stoppage that's costing the industry millions by the day.

But the real news out of New York this week won't be made at the negotiated players-owners meeting on Tuesday. Rather, it's going to be out of the league's Board of Governors meeting the following day. There, Gary Bettman will update the 29 clubs on the lockout and the progress of negotiations (Phoenix is still under league control), and the board will decide which direction to go next.

The board's decision likely will include empowering the commissioner to decide on when to cancel the season, if not setting the date for it themselves. In this game of brinksmanship, that isn't insignificant, since a "drop-dead" date will likely cue rumblings of the decertification process by the NHLPA.

As in Washington, what used to pass for reasonable discussion to generate progress has become a negotiating game in public relations, all while trying to take disputes over money and policy to the cliff. And the NHL is adopting that political style, apparently electing to engage in an expensive game of chicken with the union before the two sides eventually settle - or, if both sides don't play it right, they both go over, costing themselves infinitely more money in what really is a dispute over a smaller percentage of splitting revenue.

And, like the 1994 NHL lockout, the 2004 NHL lockout, and the 2011 NBA lockout, it appears this one will go right to the edge, with both sides seeing if they can cut their best deal at the last possible moment before heading over the cliff. In 1994 and 2011, settlements were forged from it, while 2004 saw the players and owners lose an entire campaign.

Sadly, this weekend's news just illustrates how dysfunctional the negotiations have become in recent weeks, as even a relatively simple proposal to have a small meeting became a three-day marathon.

Which, in the end, likely won't mean a whole lot anyways.