By Steve Silverman
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If the hockey season is going to start on time, the negotiating sessions between the league and the NHLPA this week are of critical importance.

Both sides have presented their initial proposals and they are far apart.

Now comes the serious business of negotiating. There is no reason for either side to hold on to their original positions if the goal is to reach an agreement. If the goal is to outlast or punish the opponent, then stubbornness and intractability will be the watchwords as the two sides meet.

While the NHL made it clear during the winter that revenues have gone up by nearly 50 percent to $3.2 billion since the last work stoppage in 2004-05, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is asking the NHLPA to accept another salary rollback this time around.

After the 2004-05 lockout that caused the cancellation of that season, players’ salaries were rolled back 24 percent. The league is now asking the players to accept a further cut that would take them from 57 percent of the revenues to 46 percent. NHLPA boss Donald Fehr disputes that figure, saying the cuts that Commissioner Bettman is asking for will take the percentage down to 43 percent.

Fehr’s response to Bettman’s over-the-top and insulting proposal – back-to-back 24 percent salary cuts – has been calm and reasonable. When Fehr was the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, he was known for his confrontational style along with a tendency to turn small fires into raging infernos with his rhetoric.

As head of the NHLPA, Fehr’s response has been professional at every turn. The turnaround has been astounding.

Fehr and the NHLPA seemed to have a reasonable offer in response to the league. They are willing to accept $465 million in salary cutbacks because the organization realizes there are a number of teams – the Phoenix Coyotes and the New Jersey Devils being two of them – that are in trouble. The NHLPA also proposed greater revenue sharing among the NHL’s member clubs to help ease the burden of the financially troubled teams.

While the NHLPA has been far more reasonable in the opening proposals, it must be prepared to move from its position if it wants to strike a deal. Of course, Bettman has to show that he wants to get the negotiations moving and not just flex his tiny biceps to show the owners what kind of man he really is.

Fehr seems likely to push hard for a deal. The NHLPA does not seem intractable and its goal is clear: Reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement so players can be on the ice at the start of training camp.

Bettman? Who knows?

Eventually, he will want hockey players to return to the ice. Right now it seems like he wants another pound of flesh from them more than he wants labor peace.

Hopefully, he is not going to just depend on the players to bail the league out of its current mess.

In addition to not being fair, it shows Bettman and the league to have little creativity and credibility. You don’t just ask your labor force to take punch after punch, especially when your revenues have gone up dramatically over an 8-year period.

In order to avoid a work stoppage, both sides have to be willing to move. However, Bettman and the owners have a lot more moving to do.

Hockey fans, what’s your gut feeling on whether there will be a lockout? Be heard in the comments below…

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