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NHL lockout 2012: Hopes dashed yet again as league rejects union's proposal

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Bruce Bennett

You know growing up when your parents used to tell you not to do something because they knew you'd only get hurt, yet you kept doing it anyway, seemingly never learning your lesson?

Hockey fans can relate, and at this point, it's time to stop getting excited about "progress" and just be pleasantly surprised -- and thankful -- when a deal is reached and the lockout is over.

After two days of positive reports on the negotiations where it appeared like a conclusion was nearing, Thursday those good feelings were doused with ice-cold water. Tuesday, the owners and players met exclusively for 10 hours, and Wednesday they met even longer, lasting into the wee hours of Thursday. Talks were described by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly as "good, candid dialogue" with the "critical open issues" to be addressed Thursday. Those meetings, which then included commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, lasted about an hour.

Nobody knew what to make of Thursday. Did the short meetings mean there was a quick foundation formed on those key issues? Did talks break down quickly instead? Unfortunately, it was the latter, but it didn't come without itsuspense.

Fehr addressed the media Thursday night saying the sides had "complete agreement" on dollars and that was represented in their counterproposal to the league's offer, which was made late Wednesday. But then he returned minutes later in a bizarre scene with players perplexed, updating with the NHL deeming the offer "unacceptable." The voicemail was left by Daly to Fehr's brother, Steve, during Fehr's initial conference.

"This looks like it's not going to be resolved in the immediate future," Fehr said, as reported by TSN. "We are clearly very close if not on top of one another in connection with most of the major issues," Fehr said. "I don't know when discussions will resume."

Bettman spoke afterward, saying the optimism had "almost inexplicably" evaporated Wednesday afternoon after such a promising Tuesday. According to Bettman, the owners made a big push for a deal Wednesday -- which included a 10-year term with an eight-year opt out, while increasing "make whole" to $300 million from $211 (players sought $389 million so this was middle ground) -- and they expected a yes or no answer. The union was "shockingly silent" and countered Thursday instead, with a new take on pensions; the league's proposal reportedly included $50 million in pension-funding in "make-whole." The league also sought a five-year limit on player's contracts, with a seven-year one for a team re-signing its own. There would be a 5 percent variance from year-to-year as well, as a means to avoid front-loading contracts. Now, though, the union can say sayonara -- at least for the moment -- to those "make-whole" concessions as the NHL has taken them off the table.

"We have moved dramatically, we are proposing a long-term system that will play the players billions and billions of dollars over its term, but we have to have a system that works right," Bettman said, as reported by TSN. "It's all part of the package. I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are tonight. We're going to have to take a deep breath and try and regroup."

Bettman says there is no "drop-dead" date yet for canceling the season, but he did say he couldn't see anything less than a 48-game season, which realistically gives the two sides a month to resolve this mess, something I do think will happen eventually to salvage a season this year.

There has already been so much fan backlash the game will take time to recover as it is. Bettman and Fehr can duke it out all they want, the fact of the matter is there is way too much to be lost than gained by losing the entire season. Players lose a year's salary. Owners miss out on revenue generated games and television deals. Even though we've reached "ground zero" again, it doesn't mean a deal can't be resurrected out of the middle of nowhere, so long as the two sides meet. Thursday was a reminder that the best bet for those hockey fans still out there is to not live day-by-day with these negotiations and not get your hopes up until both sides say they are on the same page.