Is Gary Bettman patching cracks in the NHL owners' ranks?
By Stu Hackel
Representatives of the owners and players are resuming their CBA talks after a 10-day lull during which nothing but bad feelings came to the surface. Take Red Wings defenseman Ian White's poor judgment in calling Commissioner Gary Bettman "an idiot" while a reporter's microphone was in front of him: The commissioner may be lots of things, but idiot isn't one of them.
Few people, if any, feel badly for Bettman, although he's the guy who gets most the heat, most recently over the weekend in the online magazine Grantland, where Bill Simmons artfully savaged the commissioner, even imagining him squirming during impeachment hearings ("'So you allowed John Spano to buy the Islanders without any money because … why?' That would be the best courtroom TV since the O.J. trial."). Despite a few inaccuracies, it's currently Grantland's most-read story, maybe because it also includes his Week 12 NFL picks.
By comparison, the owners whose dirty work Bettman does receive very little abuse. "Question to you is would you do what he does for 8 million dollars a year?" Coyotes winger Paul Bissonette wondered on Twitter earlier today. Yes, it's a hell of a way to make a living, but it's a very good living.
Anyway, Bettman has also taken much flak for championing a two-week hiatus in the talks, but he told Gary Lawless in Monday's extensive Winnipeg Free Press interview that it was all "misportrayed and mischaracterized." It seems NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr had asked what the next step in the stalled talks might be and Bettman suggested the break. Fehr didn't want one, so Bettman said "OK," and everything after that was blown out of proportion by "union rhetoric." The Commish repeated his pledge to Lawless that, "We were always willing to go back to the table. The lines of communication are open."
But the owners are, apparently, not willing to take any new stabs at settling the dispute; it was the union that requested this get-together. The sides have not met since Nov. 2 and they remain apart on how to forge a 50-50 split of revenue while honoring existing player contracts, and on the system of contracting rights like free agency, salary arbitration, maximum contract lengths, the Entry Level System and so on. The league calls what it now has on the table its "best offer."
It's quite likely that Fehr spent a good part of the weekend talking to the players in order to gauge whether they are willing to make further concessions or propose some horse trading on contracts to get things moving again. If the players remain firm, it could be a short meeting, considering that the NHL has shown very little desire to budge. "They are not issues that can be traded off," Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said of the contracting issues. "They are all important issues to us. That doesn't mean you can't talk about them and shake them. There is flexibility around the issues we need to achieve but they are not issues that we can walk away from."
And when Lawless asked Bettman, "Is there room for give and take on the contracting rights issues?," the Commissioner replied, "I'm not going to get into the specifics of negotiations other than to say there are contracting issues that need to be addressed and we've said we would be happy to discuss how those issues are addressed."
So Monday could be more of the same -- or perhaps something different, depending on how each side evaluated their positions during the last 10 days. If what Frank Seravalli of The Philadelphia Daily News reported on Saturday turns out to be true -- and it is being denied by the league -- there might be a movement among the owners to soften the league's stance.
In that story, Seravalli wrote, "There seems to be a seismic shift going on among the NHL's Board of Governors, also known as the group that Bettman answers to collectively. And Flyers chairman Ed Snider may be the big mover-and-shaker behind it all.
"Multiple sources confirmed to the Daily News on Friday that Snider, once seen as a supporter of the Bettman's push to rein in the players' share of revenue, has soured on the process after it became apparent that a deal would not be brokered in time for a Dec. 1 puck drop. Put simply: Snider and the rest of the NHL's owners were promised a big win by Bettman, with player concessions on revenue division and contracting rights. The best they'll get now is a small win in revenue split - coupled with a demoralized fan base and all-important corporate sponsors that are ready to quit.
"A source familiar with Snider's thinking characterized it as: 'If this is the deal we are going to get, what's the point of dragging this out?...On Friday, multiple sources indicated Snider's 'strong discontent' for Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, a big-market owner who has been one of the lockout's ringleaders.
"Despite their on-ice rivalry, there seems to be some thinking that the Flyers are interested in teaming up with the midmarket but high-revenue Pittsburgh Penguins to sway more governors toward a swift resolution. The Rangers are also viewed as anti-lockout. At the very least, if the Flyers are changing their view, two important questions arise: Which other teams have shifted? Where is this whole thing heading?"
Now, Ed Snider is not just another owner. He's the one of the most powerful, a member of the board's executive committee, which guides all of ownership's actions, and the longest-serving governor in the NHL. He is also, as chairman of Comcast Spectacor, the unofficial eyes, ears and voice of Comcast/NBC on the Board. Snider was thought to be a hardliner at the outset of the lockout, but as time has gone on, many believe his stance changed and, while he continued to support Bettman, he was no longer in favor of losing the entire season over the disputed issues. Whether this change -- if true -- came because of his own sense of the damage that the lockout is inflicting on the league or because his partners at Comcast raised issues about their business interests, or both, is uncertain.
Seravalli reported, "While some of the smaller-market teams have been interested in a greater percentage of 'hockey related revenue' to help get back in the black, there is a growing sentiment that any lingering effects from this lockout could wipe out a franchise in Columbus, Florida, Nashville or Tampa Bay entirely. According to a source, the Flyers' top-level executives presented their own proposal for the collective-bargaining agreement nearly 3 weeks ago. It remains unclear whether their proposal was the engine behind the league's progress last week, when they strung together lengthy bargaining sessions in 7 out of 9 days." That progress came to a screeching halt and some alleged it was Jacobs who engineered it.
Snider released a statement shortly after the story appeared which read: "'An article appearing in today's Philadelphia Daily News is absolutely erroneous. I am a solid supporter of National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman and the league in this unfortunate situation. Like all fans, players, owners and league officials, I am extremely hopeful that an agreement can be reached and we can eventually be playing hockey again soon. League rules prevent me and all owners from making any comments on the labor negotiations. I will continue to honor that and not make any further comments."
When Lawless mentioned to Bettman that a report out of Philadelphia on Saturday said the commissioner was losing the support of the owners, he replied, "It was a fabrication. Ed Snider is the one who told me about the article when he found out about it and he was terribly upset. He's in Europe and it was his idea to put out a statement. Anyone who doubts the resolve of ownership is either uninformed or (being) intentionally misleading."
Funny that Bettman volunteered the information that it was Snider's idea to put out the statement; Lawless never asked him about that. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that an angry Bettman saw the story and tracked down Snider to demand such a statement be released in order to maintain the image of solidarity among ownership.
It's folly, of course, to believe that either the owners or the players are 100 percent in favor of the direction this lockout has taken. The world's just not that way. But an open appearance of cracks in the owners' ranks -- and Snider is as significant as they come -- would, in the view of those driving the lockout bus, likely encourage the players to stiffen their resolve, make them less likely to bend in this standoff, and lead them to believe that if they continue to hold fast against making more concessions, the owners will be the ones who blink first.
Leaks that damage the owners' negotiating position are a big reason why Bettman placed a $1 million gag order on his constituents long ago. The impression of unity is all-important and why, as Seravalli told his readers, "league rules require a vote of 75 percent of governors to oppose the commissioner's recommendation. That means Bettman has absolute power, so long as he has eight out of 30 owners to block any hostile movement against him. Bettman actually needs only seven owners to support him, since the league owns the Phoenix franchise."
So those owners who would like to make peace need 23 votes of 30 to overrule the hardliners. As The Globe and Mail's David Shoalts reported Monday after speaking with some governors (hey, aren't they prohibited from speaking?), "The governors say the opinions in their ranks are so split neither the hardliners nor the moderates could rally 23 votes."
Sadly, a change in direction at this juncture is hard to fathom. Until we hear of some actual movement coming out of the negotiations -- regardless of how true the Ed Snider story is -- it's best not to have any expectations about Monday's meeting.
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