With the 2012 NHL lockout as stagnant as ever, the league will send a group of owners to meet with a group of players and their reps Tuesday without the presence of commissioner Gary Bettman or NHLPA head Donald Fehr.
The league announced Sunday evening that the owners involved will be Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins, Ron Burkle of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mark Chipman of the Winnipeg Jets, Jeffery Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Murray Edwards of the Calgary Flames and Larry Tanenbaum of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It's a mix of team reps who have been heavily involved in negotiations (noted hardliner Jacobs, plus Edwards), some owners of very profitable teams (Jacobs, Tannenbaum), and some owners who are fairly new to the league but are already respected (Chipman, Vinik). That makeup is theoretically designed to show the players the ownership is united in its demands regardless of market size.
The question is whether this meeting will do anything to move the needle in negotiations. The answer is "not bloody likely."
1. A major breakthrough from an internal coup.
The least likely scenario, yet one befitting the wildest dreams of either side, is that in the absence of their figurehead, either the NHLPA or the owners offer big concessions or new ideas that Bettman or Fehr never would have put on the table. There is precedent for this, in that the NHLPA made major moves without Bob Goodenow back during the 2004-05 lockout.
No doubt the NHL is hoping for a similar undermining of Fehr, and the players are hoping NHL owners want to be rid of Bettman even 10 percent as badly as they do. But again: not likely.
2. A modest breakthrough through a reality check.
Since the negotiating environment is poisoned in part by the players' well-known resentment of Gary Bettman and the owners' mistrust of Donald Fehr, perhaps one or both sides will have a wake-up, a reality check when they realize that the opposition really is looking for the things their designated leader has said they want all along.
Such a realization wouldn't move the sides any closer in terms of negotiating stance, but it could make them stop counting on the other side's willingness to back down "if only that guy weren't here."
3. Nothing. Nothing at all.
The most likely scenario is that this episode goes the way previous gambits did: Just like mediation and nearly a week of uninterrupted meetings produced no major breakthroughs, this players-owners meeting will likely just end up being another way of saying, "We tried." The owners appear to be operating under a script that counts on the players folding by a certain date or else they vote on whether to cancel the season, and that date is certainly not the first week of December.
Instead, if anything produces movement this week it will probably be the NHL Board of Governors meeting on Dec. 5. That will be a chance for all the owners to gather and assess where they are, evaluate whether their hard-line stance is worth continuing.
While this week's leaders-free players/owners meeting may collect insight to give owners at the governors' meeting a better sense of what NHLPA weaknesses (if any) remain vulnerable to attack, that's about the best that can be expected. The two sides will not come out of it with a CBA agreement. They will not come out of it saying they better understand the other side's demands. And they sure as hell won't come out of it thanking the other side for offering new concessions.