Optimism turns to despair as NHL talks break off

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NEW YORK (AP) - 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. The problem is this is not the summer or even October. It’s December, and there isn’t much time left to reach the elusive deal and get back on the ice.

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 on Thursday. It wanted a yes or no answer.

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

Fehr didn’t take that as a negative response when he stood in front of a large throng of reporters in a Manhattan hotel and proclaimed that agreements had been all but reached on key issues, and a full deal could be reached in short order.

“If we can get a positive response and conclude this, hopefully it doesn’t take long,” Fehr said.

Then things took a wild and unprecedented turn.

While players were talking to reporters, they were told to return to the podium where they had flanked Fehr moments before. Word spread that Fehr was coming back to speak again, and when he did, the tone and the news were nowhere near as hopeful.

“There has been a development. It’s not a positive one,” he said. “We have been advised in a voice mail message that the moves the players made were not acceptable. There was no reason to stay around tonight or tomorrow, that they would be in touch. And that something _ everything is off the table.

“We don’t know what that means.”

They would soon find out when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly took Fehr’s place at the podium and gave their side of the story. Three news conferences in the span of an hour turned the talk from whether there could be a deal in days to conversations questioning whether an agreement could be made at all.

“I find it almost incomprehensible he did that,” the visibly angry Bettman said of Fehr’s positive spin. “I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are. I need to take a deep breath and try to regroup.”

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 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 nonnegotiable points. The players’ association accepted the raise, but then made counterproposals on the issues the league stated had no wiggle room.

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