December 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm

John Niyo

It's now or never if NHL is to strike deal

Justin Abdelkader: "Both sides realize this is the time that we need to get a deal done if we want to salvage the season." (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Detroit In the boardroom, it appears they're no longer just skating in circles, going through the motions.

And on the ice, that appeared to be the case, too, as more than a dozen NHL players — most of them Red Wings — gathered for another informal workout Wednesday at the Troy Sports Center.

They've been at it three days a week for nearly three months now — this marked Day 81 of the lockout — but at times the numbers have dwindled, along with the hopes of ever putting a stop to this latest work stoppage.

On Wednesday, though, they had enough skaters to use the full rink with bench players to spare, and the 90-minute session looked suspiciously like a training-camp practice with a brisk pace and plenty of chirping. There was even a scrimmage to end it, using a running game clock and scoreboard.

Was it a sign that the ice might finally be melting on the NHL's frigid labor stalemate? Well, maybe.

"A little bit more hop in your step, I guess you could say," said Danny Cleary, the veteran Red Wings forward who has been heavily involved in these CBA negotiations. "But guys don't want to get overly optimistic. You want to be cautious, like we've been saying. And let's see what happens today."

And tomorrow, presumably. Because if there is one thing that all parties seem to agree on, it's that this week's earnest return to the bargaining table represents the last, best hope.

"Both sides realize this is the time that we need to get a deal done if we want to salvage the season," said Justin Abdelkader, another of the Red Wings union reps. "So I think it's good both sides are really putting forth effort to try to get something here."

Still work to do

It would've been better if they'd done that before the leaves turned, of course. Here and there, we've seen glimmers of hope this fall. But not until this week have the two sides genuinely treated the process with the proper urgency, or respect. For that, they all must share the blame — and the fans' ire.

Tuesday night, a group of 18 players met face-to-face with a half-dozen NHL owners — without the polarizing presence of commissioner Gary Bettman or NHL Players Association boss Donald Fehr in the room — to lay their cards on the table: Here's what we will not give up.

"We told them what we were firm on, they told us what they were firm on," said Cleary, who was still trying to decide if he'd head to New York to rejoin the fray this week.

Wednesday, the owners then met for a scheduled Board of Governors meeting, getting briefed on where the negotiations stood and discussing potential scenarios and scheduling options for a truncated season.

They're talking about 50-60 games, with the season starting as early as the end of this month, if a deal is struck in the coming days.

"I think we're probably still a couple weeks out before we can get anything realistically started," Abdelkader said. "But that's if we can get something done."

And that's still a big "if," as everyone watched the smoke signals, looking for signs of peace Wednesday night after new proposals were exchanged The sides entered this round of talks still with significant gaps to bridge on the key issues — the share of revenue, player contract rights and pensions.

Sounds familiar

The rank-and-file say they've been fooled before, but haven't we all? If you'll recall, many thought a deal was close the last time around, in early December 2004, and they didn't play hockey for another 10 months after that as talks collapsed and an entire season was lost.

But Tuesday's session clearly helped moved this process forward, with new faces — most notably Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle — and a new format, "just talking straight from owner to player," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said.

There are gag orders, and there are marching orders. Only one side in these talks has issued both, which is why the owners and general managers remained mum — on the record, at least — as they left Wednesday afternoon's board meeting in New York.

This time, though, even the guys in the black hats kept their mouths shut.

"We are pleased with the process that is ongoing," Bettman told the gathered media in a scheduled briefing that was over as soon as it began. "Out of respect for that process, I don't have anything else to say."

Likewise, the players were trying their best to say as little as possible.

Neither side wants to sound too eager at this point, for fear that it'll be read as weakness and exploited at the bargaining table.

"Obviously, it's a big day today," Cleary said, catching his breath after practice.

"I mean, I'm happy. I'm happy that things are going better than they have. But I don't want to get fans too high and think something's gonna happen."

Something gonna happen here. Good or bad, it has to at this point.

"I mean, listen, it's the first week of December," Cleary agreed. "I think everybody wants to play now. So, we'll see. The time is now."

john.niyo@detnews.com

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