NHL lockout 2012: If Bettman, Fehr are following script, where does it end?

Bruce Bennett

Judging by its reluctance to seriously negotiate, the NHL owners have a scripted date or milestone in mind when they'll stop demanding the world or else. Is that date this season? Can that milestone come with NHLPA decertification?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says he is "mystified" that the lockout he and the owners have initiated is not over, yet he's done little over the past month to end it.

He has said the CBA the owners have proposed is "fair and balanced" -- apparently without a whiff of irony nor a nod to Bill O'Reilly or George Orwell.

The last few collective bargaining sessions with the NHL Players Association have resulted in player concessions, followed only by further ownership "mystification." The NHL is not so much bargaining or negotiating as it is simply following the script to see how many concessions its continued pressure can wrest from the players.

"We're having a tough time understanding why what we have proposed and what we have proposed previously hasn't been accepted," Bettman lamented last week, as if the NHL began this arduous saga by offering the big, bad union a chocolate bar wrapped in gold and sprinkled with fairy dust, rather than stick to the same list of demands virtually all summer, fall and soon winter too.

As many have pointed out, the NHL appears to be following the same script used by the NBA and NFL before them, including using law firm Proskauer Rose for strategy.

This script, as Buffalo Sabres goalie and decertification advocate Ryan Miller puts it:

"Gary Bettman and the owners are trying to get a sense of how far they can push us and at some point we have to say ‘enough.’"

NHLPA head Donald Fehr is hardly an unbiased observer, but it's increasingly difficult not to believe his own slant, as the events continue to reflect the narrative Fehr depicts:

"When you make a move towards them, if you’re going to have an agreement, somebody has to say, ‘Yes and now I can do this.’ Instead they said, more or less, ‘Yes and what else can you do for me?’"

Apparently still oblivious to irony, Bettman -- a man who in 20 years has yet to speak on record without talking points -- thinks this is all "spin":

"I think everyone needs to take a step back, and I think all of the PR spinning is not going to get this done."

Yet the NHL has offered nothing but spin. They certainly aren't doing the negotiating to get this done. They're certainly not exploring alternatives to get this done. Instead they remain wed to the same increase in revenue share (already secured) as well as a decrease in player contracting rights they've demanded throughout the lockout.

When Bettman and the owners have the gall to refuse to negotiate until the PA makes yet another proposal -- and then promptly dismiss that proposal -- you know that negotiation is not yet in their script. Instead, waiting to see how far the players cave in.

Which raises the next question -- and the only one hockey fans truly care about: How long are the owners willing to wait? They obviously feel they can afford to cancel games through mid-December -- but how long is too long? Do the players need to play this leverage game and begin decertification? Does the NHLPA need to show, as Miller suggests, that the players have an "enough" point at which they will be pushed no further?

The NHL reportedly has a board of governors meeting set for Dec. 5, so given their own lack of movement, it's tough to imagine this stasis changing between now and then.

But as that date comes and goes ... at what point do the owners count their gains and get back to business? At what time do they end their fans' misery make serious strides to reach a deal? At what point does the threat of union decertification, a canceled season and general chaos become too much for even them to bear?

In other words, at what point does this script end and hockey resume?

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