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For NHL, NHLPA, time for games is over

Why the owners and players should save their energy for the bargaining table.

Bruce Bennett

The latest chapter in the NHL's labor talks played out like an afternoon talk show.

While the NHL and NHLPA had appeared to make headway in ending the nearly three-month old labor dispute by shaking up the negotiators and looking like they wanted to settle on Tuesday and Wednesday, that all came to a grinding halt Thursday when the NHL rejected an NHLPA counteroffer in very unusual fashion.

After the league rejected the latest offer - apparently by NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly leaving a voice mail on NHLPA outside counsel Steve Fehr's cell phone during a press conference - the two sides went into spin mode trying to point the finger at the other.

The NHLPA started a second press conference to announce the offer was rejected in a strange way. That was followed by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman angrily blasting the union's intent and a release of statements from the four owners involved in the talks who were still on site in New York - the first such comments since the lockout began.

At this point, while both the NHL and NHLPA appear like they are desperate to score points in the public relations department, they both should save their efforts for the bargaining table.

It's become apparent in the last few months that both sides have simply been employing stall tactics to try and squeeze concessions out of the other side by building up pressure.

While the owners started this dispute back in September and locked out a sport that was on a significant growth trend and recording record revenue - thanks to a system they lost a season to install in 2005 - they apparently are simply following the NBA's plan of trying to boost its revenue by percentage points by holding up the start of a season.

And the players apparently believe that the longer they wait, the more pressure sponsors and fans will put on the league to close a deal with better terms for the NHLPA.

Both sides looked like they were going to finally reach the point of settling the dispute this week, but the progress was halted abruptly in ugly fashion. While the owners appeared optimistic that a deal would get done, it also appears that the NHLPA felt it could slow the process down enough to wean more favorable terms as well.

In this high-stakes game, any sign that a settlement is near has resulted in an aggressive move to get more favorable terms. When it seemed the owners were ready to close on a deal, the PA apparently decided to see what else it could get before the talks completely stalled.

In the end, both just will end up costing themselves millions of dollars with these brinksmanship tactics.

Fan frustration with the league is rising rapidly - as evidenced by the booing of a Happy Holidays message from the Capitals at Verizon Center Thursday night during the AHL Showcase - and each day that passes, the frustration - and apathy - mounts toward all parties involved.

Sponsors aren't happy with the developments, and soon the NHL will have no choice but to collect a pro-rated amount from them since it seems that the season will have fewer than the 61 games required for full payment. The league's American broadcast partner, NBC, isn't happy, not only because of the loss of the Winter Classic - regularly the highest-rated regular-season game of the year - but also because its cable channel, NBC Sports Network, is languishing in the ratings without the sport on its slate.

For the players too, the lockout is adding up, since while the contract terms get better, this year's salaries shrink with each cancelled game. While earning some more concessions by playing a patient strategy of negotiations, players are giving up salaries that are now in the neighborhood of half-a-billion dollars and climbing.

While the owners can write off business losses, there is no recovery for the players, as the money simply vanishes forever in the prime of their earning power.

And, with the two sides putting their own revenue at risk by needlessly dragging out this very expensive game of chicken, eventually, there will be less money for them to eventually split up.

It appears now that both sides are determined to push each other to the brink of a schedule that might be as small as 1994-95's 48-game slate, and neither side truly will settle until they have reached that point, looking to wean every possible advantage they can before taking the whole season off a cliff.

This reckless disregard for those who pay the freight for the league isn't something that will go unnoticed by the fans and others who make the NHL possible, and while the two sides hope the allure of the game will bring the dollars back, they have tested their fans' patience three times now in the last 18 years. And, given the less-than-noble fight is over splitting up their money, that certainly won't be forgotten by some fans.

In the end, the NHL and NHLPA should see that the financial damage done by looking to "win" in this lockout could be greater than if they had just continued under the old system. A greater percentage of a smaller pie means little to the owners, while the players are losing salary they never get back.

Despite the bravado on display just off Times Square, I still think the two sides come to an agreement, as the fact the two could not agree on a rather simple revenue split is absurd. The money between the two proposals pales in comparison to what both sides lose in a year, and at some point, it's reckless to their own financial health.

And while there is the narrative of the two sides not exactly being friendly, in the end, this is a business dispute, just a fight about money, which will finally result in its end.

It's a shame neither side can realize the stability and success a sport can gain from labor peace. Sometimes, it's better to make sure you earn more by playing games and sharing the wealth than by holding out and playing negotiating games.