If negotiations are about pressure points, then the National Hockey League thinks it has a potent one in Thursday's self-imposed deadline for preserving an 82-game regular season.
So potent, in fact, that it believes it's enough to get the National Hockey League Players Association to forgo mutual discussions on alternative solutions to the lockout in favor of focused talks on its proposal from last week — or, failing that, on another formal proposal from the NHLPA.
Like the three they produced last time the sides met; proposals met with such great enthusiasm by the NHL that Gary Bettman was sipping a wine spritzer on a plane back to New York within the hour …
But the NHLPA was undaunted, telling Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press that its executive board had decided to request a meeting with the NHL this week. Not that there was a meeting scheduled, which would have been news; but that they had requested a meeting, which alerts the public that they're willing to meet unconditionally with the NHL when the NHL inevitably shuts down the request in a show of deadline posturing by both sides.
Which is exactly what happened.
From NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, to the Star Tribune on Tuesday night:
"The Union has rejected the proposal we tabled last Tuesday and has indicated no intention to come forward with a new proposal," Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly emailed the Star Tribune. "In light of their position, we don't see that anything will be gained by meeting this week. Looks like we'll have to regroup and go back to the drawing board. Extremely unfortunate, but even more unfortunately, very predictable."
The NHLPA contends that exchanging proposals "hasn't worked" and that meeting on the NHL's terms is unacceptable. The purpose of the meeting request: More bridging of the gap between the sides, as "getting into a room to discuss [the issues] can't hurt."
The NHL's decision not to have a formal dialogue with the players could be motivated by a number of things. Maybe it wants to keep discussions on back channels. Maybe it wants to avoid the grandstanding that will come with meeting in a public space. But most likely, it feels it has thrown the pressure on the players to get a deal done now, and that pressure should force the NHLPA to negotiate off of what was proposed last week.
"We are willing to meet and discuss that and anything else without pre-conditions and have been since last week," NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told ESPN.com in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.
"We're more than happy to do that, but one side does not get to define the agenda."
The NHLPA, a source told ESPN.com, told its players on a conference call Tuesday evening that the league only wanted to discuss the "Make Whole" provision as long as the players accepted the rest of the league's offer in full.
It's hard to believe that's an accurate depiction by Fehr, as the NHL's proposal was filled with details that seemed primed for him to negotiate changes: The 5-year cap on contracts, the 28-or-8 free agency, the 5-percent cap on salary escalation. There appeared to be wiggle room on all of this, and victories to be had by Fehr.
If the NHL truly expected the players to accept the rest of their proposal as a gateway to ensuring the full value of their contracts are honored -- hell, to just discuss that option -- well, could you blame the NHLPA for refusing that deal?
So now the acrimony between the sides has spread like a fungus, to the point at which simply deciding whether or not to meet has become as contentious as any debate over an issue.
Meanwhile, the lack of discussions in any CBA negotiation puts the season at risk. As one anonymous general manager told the Canadian Press:
"A deal is only going to get done by the two bodies working at it. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the alternative if they're not in the room talking."
The quote above was from Feb. 4, 2005.