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Top Shelf: Predictably, labor talks yield little progress

3:58 PM, Aug 22, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is little reason to follow the NHL's ongoing labor crisis because neither side involved is serious about ending the dispute anytime soon.

Not including the owners or players, there could be a few hockey fans out there who are legitimately interested in the finer points of what the league's next collective bargaining agreement will look like. To say those people are in the overwhelming minority would be obvious. That's because NHL fans have little reason to take the side of either the owners or the players. Correctly, they are focused on the one question that affects them most: "Will I get to watch NHL hockey this year?"

At the present time, however, the owners and players are far less concerned with answering that question than they are with taking care of their own interests. It's fairly safe to assume that query is far from being answered because all the owners and players have done is display indignation at the proposals presented by either side.

There is a common analogy that compares labor negotiations to a "game of chicken" and it has become cliche for all the right reasons -- it's startlingly accurate.

With the current CBA slated to expire in less than a month, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his band of owners are hardly ready to cave in to the players' demands. Obviously, the same goes for Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players Association, who like Bettman is fully prepared to talk past the other side for months if they deem taking such a hard-line stance to be necessary.

Both sides scoff when the other asks them to take a smaller share of revenue and that is an issue that isn't going to go away. Even if the two sides find somehow to agree on other topics like revenue sharing or limiting the length of contracts, you can bet the fight over who gets what size piece of the pie will last until the bitter end of labor talks. Whether that end comes before or after the current CBA is set to expire on Sept. 15 is anybody's guess.

After all, we are talking about warring factions with pockets deeper than the Mariana Trench. The owners and players could hunker down for months without feeling what's it like to be poor and when you're fighting over money and still not running out of it, why would it ever cross your mind to think about the lowly fans who want to watch hockey as a diversion from their everyday lives?

This is a high-stakes game and most of us wouldn't even be allowed entrance to the building it's being played in, let alone earn a spot at the table.

On Wednesday, Bettman and the NHL's deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, met briefly with the NHLPA boss and his brother Steve Fehr, an advisor for the union, in Toronto. That preliminary meeting was originally scheduled to be followed later in the day by a larger meeting between the two sides, but that session was pushed back to Thursday.

Depending on one's point of view, the scrapping of Wednesday's main meeting could be good or bad for the overall negotiations. At this stage of the game, it's more likely that the cancellation is irrelevant to the lengthy process of getting a deal done.

The owners and players are meeting this week in Toronto to talk about "core economic issues," but it's hard to believe inroads will be made in those areas anytime soon. After all, Bettman and the owners and the Fehr-led NHLPA each have their own ideas on how to improve the overall economic health of the league. Not surprisingly, neither side's argument will be centered around how an abbreviated or canceled 2012-13 season will affect the NHL's fiscal status.

One thing we do know is that the players have accepted the fact that a hard salary cap will stay in place. However, according to Bettman's comments after a meeting last week with Fehr and the NHLPA, that is where the efforts to reach across the aisle ends.

"There's obviously been an acknowledgement that we have issues. There has been an acknowledgement, or an acceptance if you will, that we're going to have a cap system" Bettman said. "But, in terms of how we're looking at the world, and I say this on a broader sense as it relates to the game and the health and everything else, we're not on the same page."

How could you be on the same page when there's still so much more saber rattling to be done? So much time until the people who will suffer in this fight, like the numerous team and stadium employees, see serious money concerns creep into their lives.

Beware of people who say they know definitively how this will play out, there is no way of knowing that at this point. Even if both sides found middle ground on all the issues by the time they are scheduled to meet again on Thursday, there is still plenty of time to haggle before the Sep. 15 deadline and haggle they will.

Common sense says the league can't afford another work stoppage so soon after the one that canceled the 2004-05 season, but that assumes the owners and player are using logic as a guide. Unfortunately, they are not. Not yet, at least.

Somehow the luckiest people in this debate -- the owners and players -- get to fight this hard and long over money provided by a general public that no direct link to the negotiations. The only forum the fans have to exercise their frustrations is to stop handing over their cash to the NHL, something that certainly did not happen after labor issues canceled the 2004-05 season.

Eventually, common sense will win out, but it's still too early to tell whether that day comes before some or all of the season is sacrificed to labor strife.

As for the owners and players, don't look to them for any clues. At least not while they're still focused on how much of the meat ends up on their plates.

The Sports Network

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