The outcome of two meetings this week "could decide whether the NHL season will be salvaged or lost to a lockout for the second time in nine years," according to Jeff Klein of the N.Y. TIMES. The sides today will "try a different approach to jump-start stalled negotiations" for a new CBA by putting six owners and six players in a room without NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman or NHLPA Exec Dir Donald Fehr, while tomorrow's NHL BOG meeting will "decide whether to continue the lockout despite financial losses or move toward the players’ position in pursuit of a settlement." Regardless of the outcome of either meeting, more games "are expected to be canceled by the end of the week," likely those through Jan. 1. The "new faces" on the owners’ side at today’s meeting will be Jets Chair Mark Chipman, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment Chair Larry Tanenbaum, Penguins co-Owner Ronald Burkle and Lightning Owner Jeff Vinik. That group is "considered to be part of the owners’ moderate wing." But two more "hard-line owners from the negotiating committee will also be present" -- Bruins Owner Jeremy Jacobs and Flames Owner Murray Edwards. Burkle, Tanenbaum and Chipman are "believed to be less hard line than other NHL owners." Vinik’s views "are less clear," but the Lightning continue to "lose money, and Vinik may be willing to hold a hard line until the owners wring more concessions from the players." Penguins C Sidney Crosby, Blackhawks C Jonathan Toews, Sabres G Ryan Miller and "other outspoken, pro-union stars will be in New York, and the players’ delegation is expected to include one or two big names." But the delegation also is "expected to include some lesser-known players" like Jets D Ron Hainsey, Kings RW Kevin Westgarth and Panthers RW George Parros, who "have been present for most negotiating sessions and are well-versed in the issues" (N.Y. TIMES, 12/4).
PLAYER SELECTION PROCESS: The CP's Chris Johnston noted Crosby has been "involved throughout the negotiations and could play an important role" in today's meeting. He has "emerged as a voice of reason," and it is "hard to imagine a scenario that would see Crosby left out of the meeting." He attended two sessions in Toronto "when the union tabled offers and was among the nearly 300 players to convene in New York for a meeting just before the lockout began in September" (CP, 12/3). In Buffalo, John Vogl notes Miller "hopes he's one of those players" in the meeting. Miller yesterday in a text message said, "I don’t entirely agree with leaving the heads of negotiation out of this because they are paid to make a deal. But if it gets more owners involved then so be it." He added, "A lot of guys want the opportunity. I hope we all get a better feel of what each side truly needs. On our side anyone can talk to the media or attend meetings, so I am hopeful that having more owners join the conversation we can get somewhere and break up this monopoly 4-5 owners have had on deal making" (BUFFALO NEWS, 12/4). CBSSPORTS.com's Brian Stubits wrote the "belief among many is that for this meeting to really be successful it will require some star power from the players." They are the players "who stand to lose the most but as a result also seem to have a pretty big say." While this meeting will be "different from anything we've seen to date, it doesn't seem like it will really be worthwhile" (CBSSPORTS.com, 12/3).
NEW OWNERS COULD BRING NEW PERSPECTIVES: In Winnipeg, Ken Wiebe writes the presence of Chipman at the bargaining table "has to be viewed as a positive step." Although Chipman has respected Bettman’s "gag order and not shared his views on the lockout, it’s safe to say the Jets owners are among the group of moderates and would benefit from the game being back on the ice sooner than later." Jets LW Andrew Ladd said, “Hopefully, it makes a difference. If Mark had been involved in the whole process, we’d be having a different result right now" (WINNIPEG SUN, 12/4). An NHL team exec yesterday said Tanenbaum "has a reputation of being fair to players." The exec: "If he has something to say, the players won't think he's trying to stick it to them" (TORONTO SUN, 12/4). A union source said, "It will be good to have guys like (Burkle and Chipman) involved in the process, guys who (are) around their players on a more regular basis" (BOSTON HERALD, 12/4). ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun wrote, "Burkle’s inclusion is the key, in my opinion. Hugely successful in his private businesses, the billionaire has a reputation as a deal-maker." Burkle has "strongly wanted to get involved of late and I believe he’s going into this meeting with the intent of doing everything he can to close the gap between the sides." LeBrun noted Jacobs' presence in the room likely does not mean a "newbie like Burkle is going to take any marching orders from him." However, ESPN.com's Scott Burnside wrote players "can’t stand" Jacobs. Burnside: "I'm not sure why he needs to be in the room if this is about bridging a gap that most people believe isn’t that significant" (ESPN.com, 12/3). In Vancouver, Ed Willes writes Jacobs' presence "can be construed as a provocative action from the owners." So maybe today's meetings will "mark a sea change in these negotiations and maybe it's just more of the same old, same old" (Vancouver PROVINCE, 12/4). In New Jersey, Andrew Gross writes having Rangers Owner James Dolan in the meeting "would have been a big step in the players' direction." Gross: "Perhaps one that Bettman could not afford" (Bergen RECORD, 12/4).
MIXED EMOTIONS OVER MEETING: The GLOBE & MAIL's David Ebner cites sources as saying that the "conclave of hockey players and owners in direct talks ... is the best hope to save the season." However, optimism "varies among those involved." One owner source yesterday said that the "new mix of voices and perspectives may be what is needed to revive the stalled talks." A second owner source, who "had been previously pessimistic about the prospects for a season, felt optimistic Monday." He said that the owners’ "ability to present 'unfiltered' views could help." A third owner source said that the NHL "has already offered a fair deal and that there is nothing more to cede to the players." He also "blamed" Fehr for the "impasse." The source "envisions a repeat of 2004-05, the lost season." He said, “I don’t think we’re playing. That’s the bottom line.” Ebner notes while "at least several owner sources feel some optimism, there remains an entrenched chasm in points of view" (GLOBE & MAIL, 12/4). Wild C Zach Parise said, "I'm for whatever gets people in the room chatting. I think it's a good idea to get new people in there. Let's get some new ideas, let's try to get something positive to build on" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 12/4).
STILL PROCEEDING WITH CAUTION: In Montreal, Pat Hickey writes the session in N.Y. "should provide a clearer picture of how the battle lines are drawn in the ongoing labour dispute." Bettman has been "vilified by the players, who portray him as the architect of the lockout." The NHL owners see Fehr "as a major stumbling block to an agreement." Those stereotypes will "be put to the test when Bettman and Fehr are relegated to the bench" (Montreal GAZETTE, 12/4). THE HOCKEY NEWS' Ken Campbell wrote, "Almost nobody in the hockey world is attaching even cautious optimism to the Tuesday owners-players-only meeting, which is probably wise." That is because there are "too many aspects to this that work against it merely being an exercise in futility." Here are "three reasons why ... the meeting is doomed." The first is the "presence of Jeremy Jacobs and Murray Edwards on the ownership side." Campbell: "Let’s see if we have this straight. The league extends an olive branch to the players by proposing this meeting, then insists on having its two most prominent hawks as part of the meetings? How counterproductive can you get?" Second is Bettman, as there is "far too much risk attached to it for him if this scheme were to work." Bettman "likely believes it has no hope, therefore he knows there is little to lose by making the proposal." Lastly is Fehr, as this is "a good exercise in proving the players are doing everything they can and will give them another good reason to decertify, should that be the route they choose to go" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 12/3).
WAS IT THE RIGHT CHOICE? SI.com's Stu Hackel wrote this meeting "was Bettman’s idea, and why he proposed it isn’t clear." Considering his "lack of popularity and the NHL’s tendency to try to divide the union and its leadership, many believe there must have been an ulterior motive behind the Commissioner’s request." Many in the union "remained suspicious -- that lack of trust is a big feature of where things currently sit -- and didn’t favor the meeting, which is likely why the union took three days to accept the invitation" (SI.com, 12/3). Former NHLPA Ombudsman Buzz Hargrove said, "It's a mistake on the part of the union; I wouldn't have agreed to it. They have a bargaining committee to do the bargaining, and they hired an executive director to lead it." Hargrove added, “He (Fehr) is the guy with the experience as opposed to players who are for the most part very young and very inexperienced” (TORONTO STAR, 12/4).
BACKUP PLAN: ESPN.com’s Burnside in a separate piece wrote there are “a couple of routes the players' association could travel.” They could file a disclaimer of interest that would see Fehr "inform the league that the union no longer represents the interests of the players, or they could go the full decertification route, which involves polling the players to ensure support of the strategy.” Some experts believe that the disclaimer of interest is “more expedient but more susceptible to a legal challenge from the NHL” (ESPN.com, 12/3). ESPN.com’s Craig Custance wrote a meeting today without progress would push the players "closer to a step they've so far managed to delay: decertification.” They are “not there yet, but they're getting closer.” Custance: “Make no mistake, a full-on decertification would be Armageddon. Although it might not be necessary” (ESPN.com, 12/3).