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NHL lockout or the fiscal cliff? Hockey's labor strife mirrors American politics

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Flip on CNN lately? You might find that the discussion about the "fiscal cliff" feels a whole lot like the NHL lockout.

Alex Wong

Let's play a game. Read the following quotes and try to determine the subject: Ongoing NHL lockout negotiations, or "fiscal cliff" negotiations that are current the focus of the entire U.S. federal government?

We've removed the names of people involved to keep you guessing. Click the links for answers:

Despite an intensifying pace, little progress is being reported in talks...

***

"There were some offers that were exchanged back and forth yesterday," he said, adding that "[he] and I had some pretty frank conversation about how far apart we are."

"In the five weeks since we've signaled our willingness to forge an agreement with [the other side, they've] never put forth a plan that meets these standards. And frankly, it's why we don't have an agreement today."

***

"They were discussions of the various issues involved and how far we are apart and where we go from here. I can't tell you that any progress was made.

***

Neither side has given much ground, and [their] exchange of proposals with [the other side] seemed to generate hard feelings more than progress.

***

We made substantial movement on our end quickly, but unfortunately that was not met with the same level of movement from the other side.

***

"We're waiting to see what happens before we decide on hiring. I can't continue to invest in the business until I know what's going to happen," she says.

***

"It's very hard to look them in the eye and say, ‘You know what - you go to go find different work, because we don't have jobs for you,'" Kasel said.

And now, hockey fans, you know what it's like to be a political junkie. Luckily we only have to deal with this stuff once every seven years or so (using the word "luckily" pretty loosely there).

The parallels are in more than just the quotes. In both cases, we have two sides that a) know where the other side stands, b) has a list of demands that they must protect and c) knows where they'll have to move to get a deal done before a rapidly approaching deadline.

Democrats and Republicans know that a deal on the fiscal cliff, which must come before the New Year, will come once each side has moved towards the other on spending cuts and tax increases, respectively. The NHL and NHLPA know that a deal to end the lockout, which must come likely by mid-to-late January to save the 2012-13 season, will come once each side moves slightly further on the length of the ultimate agreement and a few contracting rules.

So why aren't deals done? If they know how to get there, why can't they just .... you know, get there already? Here's a pretty pertinent little quote from Norman Ortstein, a Washington economist, with regards to the fiscal cliff talks on this week's episode of This American Life. As you'll notice, he could have just as easily been talking about the lockout.

"It seems like a big week, but the fact is we're in the middle of an end game. ... I've been kind of bemused by all of the focus on the every minute maneuvering

...

There's one important principle to keep in mind: When does an end game end? At the end. And the end is not this week. There are naturally going to be people who follow every twist and turn, but it doesn't really matter.

...

All of these ploys and in some ways histrionics are par for the course, so taking the temperature on any one of them doesn't really tell us that much.

It's a game. Both sides are pushing and trying to wait it out as long as they possibly can. And why? As explained on the podcast, they each need to sell it to their own constituencies. They need to make it look like they're pushing as hard as they can on each little issue, and then, yes, when the end game comes, they can say "We did our best. We didn't lose, and we can live with this deal."

Just as both Democrats and Republicans know that gap between them isn't worth pushing the American economy over the so-called cliff, the NHL and NHLPA know that the gap between them isn't worth losing an entire season of hockey.

The sides are closer than ever before, and the end game is coming, but we're not quite there yet. We still have some more theatrics to sit through before we get there.