NHL players are expected to be "overwhelmingly in favour of a disclaimer of interest, a step toward decertifying their union, when online voting wraps up Friday," according to Mark Zwolinski of the TORONTO STAR. The league Thursday announced that games through Jan. 14 have been cancelled, and it is expected that is "as far as the NHL will go before calling off the season completely." NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly earlier this week said that the "'point of no return' on reaching a deal to save the season is somewhere in mid-January." The players appear to be "pushing full speed ahead for a disclaimer, which would see" the NHLPA authorize Exec Dir Donald Fehr and his leadership group to "remove themselves from representing the NHLers." Under that scenario, the union would "disband and force a court settlement to the lockout." Under U.S. labor laws, employees "without union representation can’t be locked out." There would be a "window of 10 to 14 days before the process reaches the courts, time to negotiate a deal and save the season" (TORONTO STAR, 12/21). Daly on Thursday in an e-mail said, "I don’t want to characterize what today’s cancellations mean or don’t mean. I will stand on the announcement that was made." In N.Y., Mark Everson notes more than 50% of the schedule "has been lost, and the rest is now in great danger, too" (N.Y. POST, 12/21). Also in N.Y., Jeff Klein notes the NHL has "now canceled 2,323 games in three lockouts since" Gary Bettman became commissioner in '93, about 10% of the "games originally scheduled during his tenure" (N.Y. TIMES, 12/21).
THE FINE PRINT: The GLOBE & MAIL's David Shoalts wrote a disclaimer of interest is a labor lawyer's "way of saying the union could dissolve, making more than 720 NHL players free agents and giving them the right to sue the owners on anti-trust grounds." It appears the measure "will easily pass, although it is seen as more of a bargaining tactic" for Fehr to "wield against the owners than an immediate move." But it still "brings the great unknown a step away and there is still no resolution in sight to the league’s third lockout in 18 years under" Bettman. Maple Leafs RW Joffrey Lupul on Wednesday night said, “To be watching the news for updates, waiting for e-mails from Don (Fehr), that’s definitely not what we had in mind going into this year at all. We knew there would be a labour situation of some sort. But to be at this point going on Christmas and now we’re voting on things, lawsuits are being filed, this is not how we saw this going” (THEGLOBEANDMAIL.com, 12/20). In Miami, George Richards writes it should be noted that "even if the measure passes -- as expected -- the NHLPA won't necessarily be broken up." But it will be "a much easier process if that becomes the course of action." Panthers G Jose Theodore said, "Right now, anything different to make the process move forward has to be looked at as good news" (MIAMI HERALD, 12/21). However, WSCR-AM's Hub Arkush said, "It’s really to their disservice to break the union. That can’t be their goal because then they can’t have their lockout (and) eventually, they’ll get clobbered in court” ("Chicago Tribune Live," Comcast SportsNet Chicago, 12/20).
TALLYING THE BALLOTS: THE HOCKEY NEWS' Ken Campbell reported at the RBC Play Hockey Charity Challenge in Toronto Thursday night, a "total of 14 players were asked whether or not they voted in favor of the move." Only Lightning C Steven Stamkos and Sabres LW Steve Ott "said they did." Another two players said that "they did, but did not want to be identified." Ten others "declined to disclose how they voted." Stamkos said that the players are "frustrated that they’ve made concessions and continually tried to communicate with the league only to be rebuffed." Ott said, "To see the give, give, give and give more without any give back is frustrating. I truly think there’s a deal to be made. They had a scripted stance it seems, and that’s pretty evident with the way things have gone on. It’s terrible to see the propaganda because it’s not fair to the fans" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 12/20).
DEADLINE FOR A DEAL: In N.Y., Pat Leonard notes Bettman has "no interest in assembling a regular-season schedule of fewer than 48 games." Daly and NHLPA Special Counsel Steve Fehr "spoke briefly through back channels on Tuesday," but Daly on Thursday said that he "had not spoken to Fehr since and that there were no further negotiations scheduled" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 12/21). In Raleigh, Chip Alexander notes Donald Fehr Thursday appeared on Toronto's CHUM-AM and said that "no CBA negotiating meetings were planned but that he would be willing to meet on Christmas Day, if necessary." Fehr was asked "why the players have not voted on any CBA proposals from the league." He said that the league had "only forwarded 'pieces' of proposals and never made an offer that was 'comprehensive and good enough' to submit to a vote." Fehr added that the players are "frustrated by the stalemated talks and by the NHL lockout that began Sept. 16, but he said what’s on the table now is 'not good enough to resume the season'" (Raleigh NEWS & OBSERVER, 12/21). ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun noted the NHL and NHLPA "haven't met face to face since Dec. 13 when talks involving mediators failed to deliver any progress" (ESPN.com, 12/20).
SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR: Predators C Paul Gaustad said, "I think both sides would actually probably agree that it's a little bit surprising that we're still here." Predators D Hal Gill: "It doesn't seem too far away, so I never thought we'd be missing this because of what we're talking about right now, that's for sure" (Nashville TENNESSEAN, 12/21). Capitals RW Troy Brouwer said, "I'm more astounded that it's lasted this long, that our differences can't be worked out. It's unbelievable to think that common ground can't be met here" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 12/20). Coyotes G Mike Smith: "I am surprised it's been this long, I really am. I didn't see it lasting this long and going on this long, but it doesn't seem we're that far apart" (AZCENTRAL.com, 12/20).
BEGINNING OF THE END? In Boston, Stephen Harris writes under the header, "NHL On A Death March." The NHL on Thursday "moved one giant step closer to committing suicide." Player agent Neil Abbott said, "It's probably 70-30 or 80-20 that we're done, no season." If the season "is lost, Abbott has a difficult time seeing how the sides in this ugly fight will patch up their differences and the NHL moves forward with a workable system." Harris writes it is "getting tougher and tougher to see the NHL coming back at all," and "more and more fans probably don't care" (BOSTON HERALD, 12/21). In Ottawa, Wayne Scanlan wrote, "The Mayans had their doomsday calendar. Now, the National Hockey League does, too. ... Who among you would bet the family dwelling, the childrens' college funds and entire life savings on the prospects of a deal getting done by the ides of January?" (OTTAWACITIZEN.com, 12/20). The CBC's Tim Wharnsby wrote, "One way or another this game of chicken between the owners and the players is nearing a conclusion." The NHL "wouldn't dare cancel its second season in eight years, would it?" Wharnsby: "You wouldn't think so. But there already has been so much damage done to this $3.3-billion business does another nine months really make a difference at this point?" (CBC.ca, 12/20). YAHOO SPORTS' Nicholas Cotsonika wrote, "If you believe Bettman and Daly, we're not at the brink yet, but we can see it from here" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 12/20).
JUST IN CASE: Rogers Sportsnet's Daren Millard reported the NHLPA is "planning an outdoor game on Lake Louise sometime in February if a new collective bargaining agreement cannot be reached." The seating will be "on shore but the players will skate on the lake on a regulation size rink with boards" (SPORTSNET.ca, 12/20). The NHLPA would not comment on the report, with a union spokesperson saying it is because the "players are focused on reaching an agreement." But in Calgary, Randy Sportak reports the NHLPA's plan in Lake Louise would be to "bring on a major sponsor or two -- think of companies not currently involved with the NHL -- to help offset the costs, because there couldn't be a substantial crowd for the game, with temporary bleachers the best-case scenario for seats" (CALGARY SUN, 12/21).