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Players gird for battle in a lockout war they can't really win

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – "PEACE." The word was written across the chest of Henrik Zetterberg's T-shirt Thursday, and it would be nice to think it was intentional, a subtle sign of protest amid the madness.

But it wasn't.

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The NHLPA believes it has already offered major concessions, but says the league always wants more. (Getty)

Zetterberg just happened to wear that particular shirt on this particular day, and when he realized it, he thought it was kind of funny. Because as he stood there with so many of his colleagues – crowding the dais behind NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr, spilling off to the side of the hotel ballroom – there was no doubt about what they were doing. They were showcasing their solidarity. They were sending a message to the owners about the looming labor war.

"If they want one, we're ready," said Zetterberg, the Detroit Red Wings star, who serves on the union's negotiating committee. "We want to play. But if they want to lock us out, we're prepared for that, too."

The NHL will lock out the players after the collective bargaining agreement expires Saturday night. There is little hope of a breakthrough before the deadline. Though NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr were expected to communicate Thursday night, it seemed unlikely the sides would meet informally and even less likely they would meet formally.

"Their deal that's on the table now is totally unacceptable," Zetterberg said. "We can't even start bargaining because we're so far off."

[Related: Sidney Crosby speaks up for players' union: 'We're willing to sacrifice']

That means the owners' latest proposal will come off the table. That means both sides will have blown an opportunity to make a deal. And that means the players will have to ask themselves some sobering questions: Now what? They're being idealistic, but are they being realistic? How do they win this war – or, better put, what would they consider a win?

"How do we win?" asked Calgary Flames forward Michael Cammalleri. "We've already lost."

The players have already made major concessions, offering to limit their raises the next three seasons – to 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent – and then link their share to hockey-related revenue at less than the 57-percent rate they used to receive. But the owners want more, demanding the players accept an immediate pay cut, an even lower percentage of HRR and restricted contract rights.

The owners have the leverage of a lockout, and Cammalleri said they are using it like a "bully on the playground," saying, "We think we can take your cookies, too." The players' real goal is to mitigate their losses. Their only real leverage is to hold out, to hope the owners blink before they do, to hope short-term pain is worth long-term gain.

What is the point of diminishing returns?

[Also: Gary Bettman on impending lockout: 'I feel terrible about it']

The NHL's latest proposal would have the players take 49 percent of hockey-related revenue and scale down to 47 over six years. Commissioner Gary Bettman said using the union's projections of growth, the players' share would shrink 7.1 percent this season and 4 percent next season before rising again.

By one estimate, if the players miss just eight games, they will be taking the pay cut they are refusing to take now.

"Even a brief lockout," Bettman said, "will cost more in terms of lost salary and wages than what we're proposing."

Cammalleri said when 283 players gathered for the meetings in New York Wednesday and Thursday, they looked each other in the eye and said: "What would you really take? Like right now. What are you willing to miss a paycheck for?"

"After countless hours of that discussion happening in small groups, in big groups, in that room, out of that room, everyone looks at our proposal and goes, 'How can that not be what we take? Like, what do we need to do here? Where does it end?' " Cammalleri said. "If you don't take it, if you take their proposal, then the next time around, they're still going to have the same excuses. It doesn't fix anything."

[More: Fans caught in the middle of league-union CBA staredown]

It's easy to sympathize with the players, even to admire them. They are standing on principle. The owners are crying poor despite seven years of record revenue. The players want to increase revenue sharing, so the rich teams do more to help the poor teams. They believe they have a solution.

St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, a member of the union's negotiating committee, said the players think it is "something that legitimately could and would work for the NHL to be prosperous throughout all the franchises and solve some of the problems that are really at issue. … The revenue sharing and that structure is really important to us, because in five years, then you can say all the teams made money. They're happy as hell, we're happy as hell, and we can continue without this big fight."

But the NHL isn't buying it. The owners feel they need an immediate reduction in players' salaries because their costs have skyrocketed and more than half of them are losing money. They feel their revenue sharing – which their proposal increases, just not as much as the players' does – is not an issue.

And in the end, it doesn't matter whether the owners need an immediate reduction in players' salaries. It doesn't matter whether more than half the teams are really losing money. It doesn't matter if their revenue sharing is adequate. If the owners want to be bullies on the playground, they can be bullies because it's their playground. They can try to take the players' cookies.

"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of how much at this point," said Canucks goalie Cory Schneider. "And right now, we're standing firm that we really don't want to go any lower than we've gone already. We feel as though we've made a massive concession to a sport that claims it needs more money when it's raking in record revenues. So to us, that seems a little bit backwards. …

[Also: Brendan Shanahan shares views in flashback video to 1994 work stoppage]

"At some point we ask, 'When is it enough? When is what we're giving back enough for you guys, and if it's not enough, why isn't it enough?' And we don't seem to really be getting any answers as to why it isn't, just generic, 'Well, it just isn't.' We're not sure what else to do."

The players could move further. They could offer to freeze the $1.88 billion in salary they made last season and see if the owners back off their demand for an immediate pay cut. They could offer to scale down to 50 percent of hockey-related revenue and see if the owners would come up from 47.

But it doesn't sound like they will, because they think if they give another inch, the owners will want another mile.

"You need them to come to us with that deal, and then we need to decide whether we can live with it, really," Cammalleri said. "Because if we went to them right now and said, 'We'll take 35 percent of revenue, let's start the season tomorrow,' Gary might well say to us, 'Aw, you know what? Thanks, that's a good offer, but we're going to lock you out anyways and ask for 30 percent.' "

"So you don't trust Bettman?" Cammalleri was asked.

"Would you?" Cammalleri responded.

And so the players will say no, and they will be locked out, and they will hope they can last longer than the owners can, and they will try to find a way to make it all worth it. There will not be peace.

"We have to take this fight," Zetterberg said. "It's not just for the guys who are playing now. It's for the guys that are not playing in the league, the guys coming in, all the guys that's done this before. Now it's our turn to kind of fight for the next generation. You have to make that fight. Whatever it takes, it will take."

The owners will take a lot, one way or another.

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