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NHL blundering toward lockout disaster

Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild Zach Parise is just one of the players voicing their anger at NHL owners and Commissioner Gary Bettman, who have contributed to the corrosive atmosphere that now surrounds the ongoing lockout. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

As we've waited for the NHL's CBA negotiations to resume, we've also been waiting for something else. That something else came first with the inevitable announcement by the NHL on Thursday that the first whack of 2012-13 regular season games has been canceled.

How did we get here? How did it ever come to this? There are those who believe that the owners always intended to have the talks go nowhere, lock out the players and keep them out until they cave in and accept whatever terms the league gives them in a new CBA. That's how things worked last time.

Not everyone buys that interpretation, however. Luke DeCock of The Raleigh News Observer, for example, believes that the way ownership has acted this time differs from 2004, when teams like the Carolina Hurricanes prepared for a lockout by putting money aside, laid off employees before the summer started, declined to sign free agents, and timed many deals to expire after the 2003-04 season, in part due to the fact that "No one wanted to carry contracts into a new era, because at that time no one knew what it would look like."

That's not how things went this summer. The few teams that have made staff cuts only recently began laying off employees (in the case of the St. Louis Blues, they planned to trim costs anyway). A large number of contracts will carry over to the new season, whenever it starts, and free agency proved to be a bonanza, with nearly $340 million in new deals signed. (In fact, those existing and new contracts could prove problematic to the owners, with Don Fehr now wondering aloud -- as he did in this Q&A with Adam Proteau of The Hockey News and to The Canadian Press -- if the players will be legally obligated to play when the league reduces their contractually agreed-upon salaries, as the team owners are aiming to do.)

Nevertheless, some of those who believe that the owners didn't intend to lock out the players now contend that the league's initial proposal -- cutting salaries 24 percent and demanding givebacks on individual contracting rights --  was a big blunder.

"The NHL horribly misunderstood how much its first 'offer' would anger the players and stiffen resolve," writes Elliotte Friedman on CBC.ca.

Michael Grange on Sportsnet.ca says that's something the league apparently now understands. "Privately they’ve acknowledged that their initial offer of a 24 per cent salary rollback and a gutting of existing contractual rights was a miscalculation," Grange writes. "They hoped that NHLPA executive director Don Fehr would negotiate off that platform. Instead with the backdrop of the 2004-05 lockout, where the owners won a salary cap and a massive 24 per cent rollback, coming in low and hard has served to galvanize the players and severely damaged the possibility of even a modicum of trust being established between the two sides."

Now, if it was a miscalculation on the part of the owners, their revised offers have not helped to undo the damage. In fact, very little of what the owners have done since that first offer has moved the needle on the players' trust meter. For example:

* When talks first stalled on the core economics, the owners' response was to break off talks on the secondary issues, which had been more successful.

* On the eve of the lockout after the Board of Governors meeting last month, Commissioner Gary Bettman told a news conference, "We are ready, willing and able to meet any time and any place for as long as they want." But when the NHLPA asked for a meeting as the clock approached midnight on Sept. 15, the league refused and that remained the owners' stance until last weekend.

* When Red Wings executive Jim Devellano said the owners considered the players "cattle," he was fined by the NHL for violating By-law 17-17 (making inappropriate and unauthorized comments), but in its statement, the league didn't apologize or express any regrets over Devellano's characterization.

* When former Maple Leafs GM Bill Watters caused a stir this week by suggesting that Bettman might call in replacement players, there was no statement from the league that no such thing was being contemplated, and the path suggested by Watters, even though he was not a league employee, was not reflective of the NHL's thinking.

None of these things can be considered nearly as damaging as the proposal to cut salaries and restrict player movement, but they all contributed to the dark mood surrounding the lockout. When we talk about the league's missteps and miscalculations, we have to add them because the NHL really could have helped itself and helped defuse the tensions had it done any one of them. The owners would have appeared to be a bit more understanding at minimum and the conciliatory gestures might have eased the talks onto a more agreeable footing -- and if they didn't, so what? What would have been lost?

You can add to those errors in judgement the mixed messages brought about by those huge free agent contracts we mentioned above from owners who began insisting their business is in trouble -- including the league-owned Coyotes inking Shane Doan, who turns 36 in October, for four years and $21.1 million -- not long after years of telling the world how well their business had performed.

When you consider that the NHL does display admirable communication skills when it comes to keeping its corporate sponsors apprised of things, it's unfortunate that the owners don't extend the same consideration to their players. If you subscribe to the notion that the owners hoped to make a deal and not lock out the players, you have to say the NHL's gaffes contributed to how we got here and the NHLPA taking a similarly intractable stance because players are now suspicious of the NHL's motivations.

"The players now believe the owners always intended to lock them out," writes Friedman, who adds "The owners now believe the union's refusal to start negotiations until July meant it wanted to force the league to do it," closing the circle of mutual mistrust. "Right now, it is total gridlock and there are still no good answers to the question: 'What brings the thaw?' The No. 1 response remains 'I don't know.'"

Grange, a diligent journalist whose stories on Sportsnet have been shaded slightly toward ownership's direction in recent weeks, now writes, "The players aren’t ready to negotiate because they believe that whatever movement they make in the owners’ direction will simply be swallowed up and Bettman will come back to table and ask for more. After what happened seven years ago –- the players offered a 24-per-cent rollback in exchange to keep out a hard cap only for Bettman to force them to accept the roll back and the cap -- and how these ‘negotiations’ started, there’s no trust.

"In that kind of atmosphere," he continues, "what should be the normal give-and-take of bargaining is a sign of weakness. The two sides are in business together and need each other, but the players have convinced themselves this is a shakedown, and the owners’ stance has played right into their impression."

In this environment, only bad feelings come to the surface -- like Minnesota's Zach Parise telling Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “You hope (the lockout) doesn’t go too long, but it’s tough to grasp when you’ve got a guy in Gary Bettman bragging every year that we’re making ‘record revenue, record revenue, record this,’ and all of a sudden they want to take a quarter of what you’ve made away. That doesn’t make sense to anybody. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in.”

This would be a time for moderates on both sides to step forward, but that doesn't seem to be possible. In a more sensible environment, the league and the players might actually look at what each has put on the table and see some merit in it.

That's the perspective Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail takes in a story this week that looks at how the NHLPA's proposal might actually fit into what the NHL's stated needs are. He recalls that in 2005, the NHLPA proposed certain things to head off the cancellation of the season and that would have made "the majority of NHL teams...positively giddy (today) had they agreed to that deal." The league rejected it, however.

"History shows that if the league had incorporated some of the NHLPA’s ideas into the last agreement, they may have been better off in the end," Duhatschek writes. "Conclusion: Maybe they need to take a fresh look at what the NHLPA has on the table – drags on salary increases in the future, plus enhanced revenue sharing – and see if they can plug in numbers that would make it work for them.

"The alternative is to follow a script that hasn’t worked at all – win the negotiating battle and lose the CBA war. The owners got what they wanted in the last two negotiations, but miscalculated their effects, with a poor display of crystal-ball gazing. End result: They are back to the drawing board for a third time, stalled again, and this time, they better get the fix right."

There have been lots of miscalculations by the league in this saga and they come from the same mindset, the one Jimmy Devellano articulated, the one that helped his team incur a fine: “The owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around,” Jimmy D. said. “It’s not going to happen.”

So we're back to having regular season games cancelled and, after seven years of good hockey and good business, the NHL is once again a kingdom with no subjects.

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