• The damage this time will be permanent

  • By Pierre LeBrun | November 15, 2012 10:36:35 AM PST

TORONTO -- Who blinks first?

Still no bargaining talks on tap and the clock ticks away toward Armageddon as the NHL lockout reached Day 61 Thursday.

The third paycheck went by the wayside Thursday for 700-plus players who are obviously feeling more and more pressure with their livelihoods on the line.

Of course, owners with empty arenas are feeling plenty of strain, as well.

Know this: It’s too late to declare anybody a winner no matter how this plays out. The buzzer has sounded. Both sides will be declared losers. The long-term damage incurred by this league and industry can’t be undone at this point. There are corporate partners who might never want to reinvest in a sport that doesn’t play every time a CBA is up. There are fans who promise that they were fooled once, but it won’t happen twice. And there are markets that won’t rebound easily, not for a while, even with a shortened season.

And so at this point all that remains is salvaging what’s left of a chance to play hockey this season and pray that by the second or third season of a new CBA the business will have rebounded to some degree. No guarantee there.

The NHL has informed the NHLPA that talks won’t resume unless/until the players have new ideas or a new proposal to reignite things. Owners don’t want to move an inch at this point. They’re furious that their $211 million "make whole" offer was rebuffed so easily. Owners, with the hard-liners leading the way, don’t want the league to lift a finger right now on this offer. Of course, similarly, players tell me they’re riled up by the fact that the league won’t budge on its list of demands involving player contracts.

In short, everyone’s angry.

Know this, Part 2: NHLPA executive director Don Fehr has done a "masterful" job so far of managing this lockout, one NHL governor told ESPN.com Wednesday. Fehr is getting the league to move on key issues such as revenue sharing and is keeping his players on board through it all. He’s also frustrated with the league to no end. But Fehr’s grade is far from complete. His most important test is coming. Unless I’m completely misreading the tea leaves, I can’t think of very many NHL players who are willing to sacrifice an entire season of hockey just so they can make a point to commissioner Gary Bettman. I’m not saying I would sign the league’s latest, updated proposal from last week, but if I’m an NHL player, I demand that Fehr cut his losses over the next 2-3 weeks and try to make the best deal possible from what’s left on the table.

As one NHL team executive said Wednesday, "The reality is, neither side is really going to like this deal no matter where it ends up. But to wait until next season to get a deal done helps absolutely no one."

And here’s where the read on Fehr gets widely different takes. On the one hand, there are people who believe Fehr has always shown an ability to feel the pulse of his membership, and if it’s a deal they want, he’ll deliver one when the time is right. But there are others who doubt his true intentions.

"I think he wants to rewrite labor negotiations; the game is not his priority," said one NHL team executive.

A sentiment, by the way, that the players don’t buy whatsoever. Those I’ve spoken with all believe Fehr's intentions are to make a deal.

Regardless of whom you believe and what they say about Fehr, both positive or negative, he’s going to determine his own hockey legacy very shortly.

One NHL owner I exchanged texts with Wednesday believes that if next weekend (after U.S. Thanksgiving) comes and goes without a tentative deal, then it might be too late to save the season. I’m not so sure about that -- the league didn’t cancel the entire 2004-05 season until February '05, and while I do believe the league won’t wait that long this time, it’s still too early to be jumping off the cliff. But the clock is ticking.

Still, this owner’s belief tied into much of the doom and gloom that has come from the owners/league side over the last few days. How much of that is meant to be a scare tactic to get the players to finally break? Tough to tell. Some of it surely is a message to players that time is of the essence. I also believe some of that anger/anxiety about a lost season is genuine. But I would think that feeling is shared by both sides at this point.

There’s a lot at stake for everyone.


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