Haggerty: Two sides remain so close, so far away

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Haggerty: Two sides remain so close, so far away

The NHL lockout isnt going to get done until two things happen: the NHL players swallow their petty hatred of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL owners stop trying to exterminate NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr.

Both Bettman and Fehr have spacious egos, of course, and those have become obstacles. But they also both hold the innate ability to negotiate the best deal possible for their side of the aisle. That's why they're in their respective positions. Lets not forget that NHL players didnt just ask Fehr to come represent them in these negotiations two years ago.

They begged Fehr to get involved. Therefore the Fehr Brothers are exactly the kind of intimidating, clever, sometimes off-putting bad cop negotiators the NHLPA wanted after years of having their lunch fed to them in CBA negotiations.

Its not surprising the players responded the way they did on Wednesday when it was intimated to them by the "group of six" owners that re-introducing Fehr to the playerowner discussion was a deal breaker, according to Winnipeg defenseman Ron Hainsey.

"The owners attempted to argue it. This was not a debatable decision, said Hainsey to Hockey Night in Canada Radio on Friday. We do not tell them who to bring in and obviously they can't tell us. It was told to me directly Fehr coming back in could be a deal-breaker.

St. Louis Blues forward David Backes backed up those claims a day later.

That seems much more plausible than statements from NHL owners Ron Burkle, Larry Tanenbaum, Mark Chipman and Jeff Vinik that things mysteriously fell apart at the negotiating table on Wednesday. Or the anonymous player source that claimed to the Denver Post that Fehr told over 700 NHLPA members to "keep holding out" because they could get a better deal in a few weeks or a month.

Perhaps that happened, but there hasnt been a second player on or off the record who has backed up that account of the NHLPA conference call despite an overwhelming number of players that simply want to play. Instead it seems last weeks playersowners negotiation accomplished a goal that may or may not have been its intent: to make it appear things fell apart when Fehr got involved and stir unrest within the players union.

The NHL has been trying for months to create a wedge between the players and Fehr, and thereby claim they defeated the Fehr brothers when Major League Baseball never could.

Certainly the NHLPA Exec Director didnt do himself any favors with the disingenuous, grandstanding press conference Thursday that essentially announced to hockey fans that the two sides should have a done deal. It was a dead giveaway that things werent going well when Fehr publicly released the details of the NHLPA offer. Thats all part of the oversized The Donald persona that has infuriated NHL leadership and ownership, but also allowed him to stare down billionaire owners in the past.

That abrasive adversary is also somebody the NHL is going to have to endure if they want to have an NHL season.

The truth of the matter is this: the NHL and NHLPA are way too close to let things fall apart despite Thursdays embarrassing three-ring circus. The overwhelming majority of NHL players have told CSNNE.com they have zero problems with a 10-year CBA. Its assumed that's being used by the Fehrs as a negotiating leverage point with the NHL. The five-year contract maximums and five percent variance rules are a different story, however.

Most have pointed at the relatively small number of players with contracts longer than five years (roughly 10 percent), and postulated the NHLPA is willing to die on the hill for something that serves an elite few players. But thats completely missing the point. If strict five-year contract term limits are imposed the NHL becomes a league where two or three elite players on each team get big money deals that come with 8-12 million per year cap hits.

That kind of thing will virtually eliminate the NHL middle class in a league with a strict salary cap ceiling.

Its something thats already happening in the NBA, and would, in fact, affect large numbers of NHL players in the 2-4 million salary range. Not just the 10 percent enjoying long term, back-diving contracts. The NHLPA has offered other ways to eliminate those back-diving deals, but so far Bettman and the NHL owners have been resistant to anything constructed by the NHLPA.

There has also been some outside urging for the NHLPA to suddenly usurp the process and demand that Fehr allow the membership to immediately vote on the leagues last offer.

Theres only one problem with all this: there is no more NHL offer. In a fit of pique Bettman pulled the NHLs offer from the table and said that anything the two sides agreed to last week is gone. That includes the 300 million in make whole money, the reversion of free agency and arbitration rules to the prior CBA and a key agreement on the players pension plan.

If the NHL is trying to get the players to rise up against NHLPA leadership, they once again botched things. They should have left their 10-year CBA offer on the table through the weekend and given the players an opportunity to push for a vote if the 700 plus players were truly antsy to get playing.

Instead the NHLs offer went up in a mushroom cloud on Thursday, and the players have nothing to even consider. The sides have agreed on money, theyve agreed on a pension plan and they sit just a couple of years apart on key contractual issues. But theyre also vowing not to speak this weekend while they cool off from their equally off-key media sessions last week.

Forget the vendettas toward the opposing leadership. Cram the rhetoric and keyed up emotions when neither side has shown an inkling of concern for the fans or business owners dependent on the NHL through the entire process.

Just get in the room and get the deal done, and save the hatred for the next CBA smack down 10 years from now.

Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

Patriots DT Branch wins appeal of four-game suspension

FOXBORO -- Alan Branch knew he had a good case, otherwise he wouldn't have appealed. It was just a question of when that appeal might be heard. 

As of Wednesday, the Patriots defensive tackle hadnt heard anything as it related to the appeal of his four-game suspension. But by Saturday morning, according to Field Yates of ESPN, Branch had won the appeal and been cleared of the league's ban. 

Branch's agent later confirmed the news on Twitter.

Word of Branch's punishment, which stemmed from what was reported as a positive marijuana test, became public when reported by ESPN on Nov. 21. Per the league's substance abuse policy, appeal hearings are typically scheduled for the fourth Tuesday after a player has been informed of his penalty. The policy notes that it is possible for appeals to be heard on another date should the two sides be able to work out different schedule, but Branch was not optimistic that would be the case earlier this week. 

Good news came quickly, though. 

Had Branch been forced to miss any time, it would have docked the Patriots arguably their top interior defensive lineman. Branch has started every game, and he leads all Patriots defensive tackles with 457 snaps played. 

The Patriots recently waived running back DJ Foster and signed defensive tackle Darius Kilgo, seemingly as a way to build some depth on the roster if Branch had been suspended. 

By having his four-game suspension wiped away not only are the Patriots saved from having to deal without one of their top players in the trenches, but Branch saved himself a relatively hefty financial penalty.

A four-game ban would have cost him nearly $300,000 in base salary as well as four game-day bonuses adding to $100,000. He also stood to lose as much as $750,000 in season-long playing-time incentives. In all, had the suspension stood, it could have cost him about $1.1 million. Patriots salary-cap expert Miguel Benzan goes into more detail about the potential financial impact of Branch's suspension here

Thankfully for Branch, he doesn't have to worry about that any longer. With this situation in the rear view, he can now focus on helping the Patriots win games during the stretch run of the regular season and into the playoffs.