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More talk, more tension: NHL frustrated by NHLPA’s moving targets

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NEW YORK -- What almost blew up talks Wednesday? Pensions.

Yes, pensions.

After the NHL made a counterproposal -- which included raising the so-called "make-whole" payments to $300 million -- the NHL Players' Association made pensions a priority. That surprised and angered the moderate owners, and that almost led to them walking out.

The owners have long been frustrated that the players' priorities have been a moving target. One of the reasons for Tuesday's owners-players powwow -- with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr out of the room -- was to identify what each side really needed in this deal. The Toronto Maple Leafs' Larry Tanenbaum, one of the six owners involved in talks, said early Wednesday afternoon that there was "absolutely" more clarity in each sides' stance afterward.

But things clouded again Wednesday as the sides went back and forth, working on specifics instead of looking at the big picture. That goes for both sides. The owners moved significantly, but each part of their proposal is tied to the others. While one part might look good, another might look bad -- and the overall picture might look worse to the players.

The owners upped their so-called "make-whole" offer to $300 million -- up from $211 million, finding middle ground with the $393 million the players proposed previously. But that was tied to a 10-year collective bargaining agreement (with an out at eight years). The players haven't wanted to go longer than five years.

The owners also backed off on some contracting demands, keeping arbitration and free agency eligibility as it was in the last CBA. But they kept insisting on term limits -- five years, or seven if a team re-signs its own player -- and five-percent limit on salary variance to stop back-diving, cap-circumventing deals. The players have not wanted term limits, and they have their own proposal addressing cap circumvention in which a team's cap advantage is becomes a penalty if a player retires before his contract runs out.

There were tense moments Wednesday. Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller lashed out. Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, the chairman of the board of governors and a hardliner, threatened to leave.

But the real danger is this: The players have gotten the owners to back off, and the rope-a-dope strategy has been effective. But if they keep ticking off the owners who came to make a deal, it could backfire. We could have another breakdown, another delay.

I am still optimistic there will be a season. I still think it is too early to panic, even if talks blow up Thursday -- a real possibility with Bettman and Fehr reentering the room. It is Dec. 6. The drop-dead date, though undefined, probably is still at least a month away.

The sides are too close not to make a deal. Too many people on both sides have been pushing too hard this week. But closing the deal is much easier said than done, especially if no one is sure where the finish line really is.

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