The precipice appears to be approaching for NHL negotiations, and either both sides will fall off into that abyss or they will find a way to halt the negative momentum and strike a deal.
For a second straight day, the NHL and NHL Player's Association failed to hold formal negotiating sessions in an attempt to end three-plus month lockout that now has the league on the verge of canceling a second season in eight years due to a labor stoppage. The only communication between the two sides were expressed through Federal mediator Scot L. Beckenbaugh, who has been helping with the negotiations this week.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has imposed a deadline of Thursday to have a deal in place in order to start a shortened season no later than Jan. 19. Yet despite the sides reportedly close on many of the issues – close enough that many feel a deal is all but imminent – the situation appears to have taken a step back in the past 48 hours.
The NHLPA's accusation that the league tried to change some of the language on something previously agreed upon set the process back. In addition, the NHLPA currently conducting a second vote among the players to grant the executive board the power to issue a claimer of disinterest – the first step in decertifying the union, a tactic that was not used and expired on Jan. 2 – has stalled talks as well.
It can be an infuriating process.
"To us it's kind of been like that since Day 1, it's been maddening,'' said Lightning forward B.J. Crombeen, a member of the NHLPA negotiating committee. "We feel that we've been showing and wiling to get the deal done. There are points it seems like they are and then they do things to take a step backward and you shake your head and say, 'It doesn't really make sense why you would do that right now'.''
In the meantime, as a few more Lightning players arrived back in town to join informal workouts at the Ice Sports Forum – including prized free agent defenseman Matt Carle – preparations for a potential season continue. And with the possibility training camps would open by next weekend, more players could show up next week as the usual three days of on-ice workouts will increase to four days – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
"I always like to stay optimistic,'' Crombeen said. "I mean that's kind of the player's sense and feel. It's been shown in how much we continue to move and move and move. They've obviously shown that they're willing to move on some things but there are some major things and some steps backward that they take that's kind of mind-boggling at this point.
"But I think and I have thought for quite a while that a deal is there if they want to make it if they decide that they're ready to make a deal. We're all hopeful and optimistic we can get going as soon as we can.''
Though fans have been consistently showing up to watch the informal workouts, one lingering question that grows stronger each day that passes without a new agreement, will the fans show up when the game does return?
"We have to worry about what the people are saying but we got locked out in September,'' Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "We want to play hockey the fans want to watch the game, they love hockey. We want to obviously play and make sure the fan base which I know will be very supportive of us here, but you don't want to have another 2005. That's why these few days are really important.''
Getting back to the ice is paramount, despite what has gone on since the league imposed the lockout on Sept. 16.
"It's where we are now, you can't change anything you can't go back a month or two months or back to September,'' Lecavalier said. "So maybe we can get a deal done that will be good for everybody and move on.''