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Season in doubt as talks hit wall

NHL says offer non-negotiable

– Donald Fehr thought he and the hockey players he leads were close to a deal to save the season. The NHL said not so fast and then took away everything that created all the optimism in the first place.

When the 82nd day of the lockout was over, it was hard not to think the sides were thrown back to the very start of the fight.

Most of Thursday, NHL negotiators waited for the players’ association to wrap up internal discussions and get back to them regarding a proposal the league made Wednesday night. Owners greatly increased the amount of dollars they were willing to pay on the “make-whole” provision to compensate players in transitioning to the new collective bargaining agreement.

But that price came with a cost: Three conditions the NHL required the players to agree to if they wanted the influx of funds. The league wasn’t looking to negotiate on those points Thursday. It wanted a yes-or-no answer.

When management didn’t get it, negotiators got up after only an hour together and left.

Hot-button topics such as the “make-whole” provision on existing contracts not only weren’t settled, but are no longer being offered by the league. Forget that owners were willing to pay up to $300 million to cover the costs, now NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is saying the entire concept is off the table – along with everything else the league proposed during the previous two days of marathon talks.

When the NHL agreed to increase its offer of payments from $211 million, it was part of a proposed package that required the union to agree to three non-negotiable points. The players’ association accepted the raise, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.

“We put $100 million on the table, and it was received with silence,” Bettman said of the union’s response to the offer Wednesday night.

The NHL wants to limit personal player contracts to five years, seven for a club’s own player, and has elevated the issue to the highest level of importance.

“It’s the hill we will die on,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said.

The union countered with an offer of an eight-year maximum length with the variable in salary being no greater than a 25 percent difference between the highest-paid year of the deal and the lowest.

“The take or give or bottom line on all this is it appears that the union is suggesting because we made substantial movements in certain areas that we’re close to a deal,” Bettman said. “Those moves were contingent on the union specifically agreeing on other things, which while the union may have moved toward, didn’t agree to.”

It’s unsure whether the sides will meet again today. While Bettman insisted that a drop-dead date for a deal that would preserve a season with “integrity” hasn’t been established – even internally – clearly there isn’t a lot of time to work out an agreement.

“I’m surprised. We feel like we moved in their direction,” Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby said.

The 2004-05 season was lost before the players’ association accepted a deal that included a salary cap for the first time. While no major philosophical issues such as that exist now, the sides don’t appear ready to come to an agreement.

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