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Negotiators in NHL's collective bargaining talks meet with mediators

It's a good thing U.S. federal mediators aren't seeking to determine right and wrong while meeting with the NHL and NHL Players' Association this week.

According to sports management professor Aubrey Kent of Temple University, both sides have a valid reason to claim that they are in the right when it comes to their ongoing labour dispute.

"For me, the whole issue comes down to perspective," Kent said Wednesday in an interview. "Players feel as though they're being bullied and strong-armed and having things taken away—I can see that that's a legitimate perspective. Owners feel from a dollar-value perspective that the next seven years they've offered would be far more lucrative than the previous seven years were, even as good as that was.

"And if you crunch the numbers, that's actually true as well."

No wonder the sides remain so entrenched in their positions.

They met separately with mediators Scot L. Beckenbaugh and John Sweeney on Wednesday afternoon at an undisclosed location—something Kent didn't anticipate would result in a "seismic" shift in perspective from either side. The non-binding sessions are intended to try and help the sides find some common ground, and will continue Thursday.

The last move at the bargaining table came from the NHLPA, which presented a new offer last week that moved within $182 million of the league over a five-year deal. Despite that, commissioner Gary Bettman said they remained "far apart."

One reason for the gap is the clause in the proposal that stated the players' share couldn't go down from year to year—a mechanism meant to protect them in the event revenues fall. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said last week that it was a good tradeoff since the players' share would drop from 57 per cent to 50 per cent in the new deal, but Kent doesn't believe the NHL would ever accept those terms.

"I know why the players would offer that, (but) in principle it doesn't seem like it's a deal that anyone in their right mind would accept—where you get half of everything that grows and you don't take any risk on it not growing," he said.

The league and union must also find agreement on rules governing player contracts and the amount paid outside of the system by the NHL to ease the transition. The NHL has previously offered $211 million (the NHLPA is seeking $393 million), but Bettman has hinted that the offer won't remain on the table much longer.

Losses are piling up for everyone associated with the lockout. Players are scheduled to miss their fourth paycheques on Friday while owners have already seen two months worth of games go by the wayside.

The work stoppage comes at a time when NHL franchise values have never been higher, with the annual Forbes rankings released Wednesday seeing the Toronto Maple Leafs become the first team to be worth $1 billion. In all, 20 of the league's 30 teams were valued at $200 million or higher.

Despite that, the NHL and NHLPA have produced little during months of negotiations.

"Both sides feel they can get a better deal by waiting it out, but my view is that time only helps owners in these negotiations," said Kent. "And it's not just in this particular negotiation, but in any labour dispute. Employees are always at a disadvantage because salary lost is never regained.

"Whereas owners were there before the players and they'll be there after the players and they have plenty of time to make up anything that is lost."

Regular-season games have already been wiped out through Dec. 14 and there isn't much time remaining to strike a deal that would see the puck dropped immediately afterwards. In fact, it's conceivable another 10 days could pass before formal talks resume because key negotiators have full agendas next week.

The league's board of governors is set to gather in New York on Dec. 5 while representatives from both sides are scheduled to attend Quebec Labour Board hearings in Montreal on Dec. 6-7.

In other words, a quick resolution doesn't appear to be in sight.

"While the hockey fan really feels as though this is situation critical, the reality is it's just the end of November," said Kent. "With escrow cheques that have been paying in and the reality that the fall part of the season, especially in the U.S., is a fairly low yield revenue season for the hockey teams ... neither side has felt any intense pain yet.

"The real litmus test of how strongly the positions are being held as we creep towards Christmas, as we creep into the new year. That's an unfortunate reality but I think it was one that both sides were very prepared for going into this."



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