Warren: Welcome to the NHL’s version of Groundhog Day — again

Midway through Thursday’s lockout skate at the Bell Sensplex, Chris Neil made like an Olympic javelin thrower, flinging his stick into the glass above the side boards. Was it built up frustration because the end of the NHL lockout is nowhere in sight?

Warren: Welcome to the NHL’s version of Groundhog Day — again
Chris Neil (L) celebrates his goal on Craig Anderson during practice at the Bell Sensplex in Ottawa, October 22, 2012. (Jean Levac/OTTAWA CITIZEN)

Midway through Thursday’s lockout skate at the Bell Sensplex, Chris Neil made like an Olympic javelin thrower, flinging his stick into the glass above the side boards.

Was it built up frustration because the end of the NHL lockout is nowhere in sight?

Was it boiled up anger at the apparent loss of an 82-game schedule and the NHL’s threat to pull its latest offer from the bargaining table?

“Nah,” the Ottawa Senators rugged right winger said afterwards. “Marc Methot was celebrating out there because he scored on me. We’re just trying to have fun, keeping it light out there.”

Fun, however, isn’t typically the operative word for locked out NHL players or owners these days.

While Thursday may have been a Deadline Day of sorts — the NHL sent official word that its latest proposal would be pulled off the table if no deal was reached — it was really more like Groundhog Day all over again.

Nothing really changes. For those still counting, we’ve now hit Day 40 of the lockout drudgery. The NHL and the NHLPA continue to fight through the media while not talking to each other.

Even U.S. President Barack Obama, in the middle of the tight election race, has stepped up to say that it’s past time to drop the puck again.

“I just want to remind the owners and players, you guys make money because you’ve got a whole bunch of fans out there who are working really hard,” Obama told The Tonight’s Show’s Jay Leno Wednesday. “They buy tickets. They’re watching on TV. Y’all should be able to figure this out. Get this done.”

Sounds so simple, right? Bettman and players’ boss Donald Fehr should take a cue from Obama and New Jersey Devils boss Lou Lamoriello and lock themselves behind closed doors until a deal is done and there really is nothing left to talk about.

Instead, Bettman and his right-hand man, Bill Daly, continue to say the same thing: That there’s nothing to talk about unless the players are willing to accept the league’s version of what a 50/50 split of overall hockey revenues means.

“When we delivered the proposal last Tuesday, we told them it would be on the table through (Thursday),” Daly told ESPN.com. “Having not reached agreement through (Thursday), I expect that we’ll formally notify the union Friday that the proposal is no longer on the table.We’re going to take it back internally and figure out where we go from here.”

It sounds dire, but that was a foregone conclusion, anyway, because it’s now impossible to play 82 games without playing the Stanley Cup final during the summer. Expect another chunk of games to be cancelled as early as Friday.

Meanwhile, individual NHL owners are also saying the same thing they’ve been saying throughout the dispute: Nothing. They’re forbidden to publicly discuss their viewpoints of the stalemate.

Upon hearing the NHL’s latest threat, Fehr responded with another call for the NHL to talk, accompanied by a couple of verbal shots.

“It takes two to negotiate,” he told RDS. “They seem to be really good at imposing deadlines and issuing ultimatums and having lockouts. It seems to be something they’re well practiced at.”

So round and round we go, where the lockout stops nobody knows.

The players are free to talk, but their message hasn’t changed, either — at least, publicly. They’re asking the owners to be willing to negotiate, but they also insist they’re in for the long haul, paving the way for the next generation of players.

“We’re just trying to get a fair deal that’s right for everyone,” said Neil. “We realize there are some issues in the league, with the stability for some franchises in the league and we’re trying to rectify that to stabilize the whole league so there are more jobs for everyone and that’s half the battle from the players’ side.”

Neil, who lived through the 2004-05 lockout, is losing a piece of his salary every day and knows there’s a possibility of being shut out for the entire season yet again.

“It was a lose-lose situation (in 2004), nothing good comes out of it,” he said. If both sides are willing to negotiate, that’s half the battle. Getting them both in the same room, both participants be willing to negotiate, not just one side. If you look at our offers, we’ve come down significantly.”

Matt Bradley, the Stittsville native who is on his way to play with Turku in the Finnish second division, firmly believes that the NHL wanted to be exactly in the spot it is right now, echoing words that Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and defenceman Chris Phillips have also said.

“I honestly think the owners have had a set schedule all the way through and they have a timetable they’re following that we don’t know about,” Bradley said. “They’re following their calendar and we just don’t know what it is.”

Senators centre Zack Smith, who signed a four-year, $7.55 million contract in the summer, says it looks awfully suspicious that so many long-term deals were signed following the 2011-12 season. When the players countered the NHL’s proposal last week with an offer for a future 50/50 split of revenues, providing all existing contracts were honoured, Bettman left the room after 10 minutes.

“Whether it was collectively that they decided that…but there were a lot of long term deals for a lot of money and maybe (owners) thought there was going to be a rollback (on salaries),” he said. “But that definitely doesn’t help negotiations when these teams are stuck with these big contracts — $100 million contracts, expecting rollbacks.”

But now that the games are really disappearing, the owners are banking on the players folding because they’re losing cash they’ll never get back.

“For players, I’m not sure it’s about a certain loss of money or a paycheque,” Smith said, when asked if players could hold out longer than owners. “We went into this with a plan and we were willing to give up lots and we proposed to meet them halfway, but that hasn’t been done. They’re not budging.”

And so on Friday, it will be Groundhog Day once again.

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