NHL's owners-players meeting stirs hope and cynicism
By Stu Hackel
In this corner, meet the six owners who will sit at the bargaining table on Tuesday: Ron Burkle (Penguins), Mark Chipman (Jets), Murray Edwards (Flames), Jeremy Jacobs (Bruins), Larry Tanenbaum (Maple Leafs) and Jeff Vinik (Lightning).
In that corner: Uhhhh....
Who will be in the players' corner? That's a tricky question. TSN says Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews will be in New York, but it's not confirmed that they'll be at the talks. Yahoo's Nick Cotsonika tweeted, "A number of players will be in New York tomorrow. Before the meeting with the owners, they will decide who will attend." So we wait to find out officially who the NHLPA will select to represent it in this unusual session of these CBA talks to end the 79-day lockout, this time without each side's lead negotiators, Gary Bettman and Don Fehr.
Will the union want to mirror the composition of the owners team with some hardliners, some who are more moderate and some who are less interested in principle and want to play now? Will it want players who work for the owners on the other side, like Sidney Crosby sitting across the table from Burkle? Will Marty St. Louis go face-to-face with Vinik while Ron Hainsey pairs up with Chipman, and someone from the Bruins, Andrew Ference perhaps, chats with Jacobs?
Or maybe the PA would want six enforcers on its side of the table. Can you imagine George Parros, Kevin Westgarth and Paul Bissonette staring down Jacobs and Edwards? That might be fun.
This meeting was Bettman's idea, and why he proposed it isn't clear. Considering his lack of popularity and the NHL's tendency to try to divide the union and its leadership, many believe there must have been an ulterior motive behind the Commissioner's request. That may or may not be the reason. It's also possible, as legal analyst Eric Macramalla told Dave Gross and Shawn Simpson over Ottawa's Team 1200 (audio) after the idea became known, that Bettman may simply have recognized the chemistry between himself and Don Fehr wasn't working at the table and he just wanted to change things.
But many in the PA remained suspicious -- that lack of trust is a big feature of where things currently sit -- and didn't favor the meeting, which is likely why the union took three days to accept the invitation and has yet to determine who will be in it. The Coyotes' Shane Doan, in his diplomatic way, opposed the notion of players talking directly to seasoned businessmen, saying (video), "I really value how important it is having Don Fehr and those guys in the room. They're experienced. Obviously, the owners probably wouldn't come on to the ice and play us in a game, but...that's their kind of element."
And that reservation was voiced loudly enough for the players to ensure that they'll have experience on their side at the talks. Both sides will now have some staff there with Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly attending for the league and, likely, Steve Fehr for the PA.
Another potential hangup was reported by TSN's Aaron Ward, the former NHL defenseman who still has close ties to the guys on the ice. On Twitter, Ward disclosed, "Per source, NHLPA attempted to have same mediators involved in the Players/Owners meeting Tuesday. NHL rejected that offer." It didn't scuttle the meeting but that's rather telling about the value each side placed on the Federal Mediators who last week attempted to bring the original negotiating group closer.
So what can we expect from this somewhat new group of owners at the table? For one thing, it's very doubtful that an actual deal will be struck without Bettman and Fehr eventually getting involved. The whole idea behind this is to get some new voices and, perhaps, some new understandings and ideas flowing that change the dynamic of the stalled process. The lead guys would almost certainly jump back in, if only to grind out the details, should some new common ground be found.
Still, there's lots of skepticism that the owners can move off their hard line with Jacobs and Edwards present on Tuesday. (If you haven't read Joe Haggerty's column on the Bruins owner published last week on CSN New England, you should; the tale he tells at the beginning about Jacobs bullying a Jets alternate governor at a board meeting was denied by both the league and the Jets, while Haggerty stood by his story.) But in his segment on the "Morning Show" over Montreal Radio 690 on Monday, Bob McKenzie offered up the notion that the four new faces on the owners' side aren't going to be anyone's puppets, that they are all successful businessmen who aren't necessarily in lockstep with the hardliners and Bettman, but represent teams that have different interests.
McKenzie described Pittsburgh's Burkle as "a take-charge sort of guy. There's no question where his sentiment lies. He wants a deal. Now, he doesn't want a deal at any cost, he's not there to cut the legs out from under Gary Bettman or Jeremy Jacobs or anyone else. But he's not a shrinking violet, either. So the hope that I hold out is that he's not just window dressing and that he wouldn't allow himself to be window dressing. And that, in fact, he was probably -- as much as anybody -- the guy that was pushing for and wanting this different dynamic and an opportunity to get involved. So now he's going to get it and let's see how it plays out." (Craig Adams, the Penguins player representative, told Dave Molinari of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he's had only positive impressions of Burkle in their limited interaction.)
Tampa Bay's Vinik is "a well-respected guy...Tampa Bay is one of those teams in that group of teams that doesn't want to play unless the deal makes a lot of sense for them. He might be able to provide a fresh perspective to the players on why it's important to the Tampa Bay Lightning to get many of these things that the NHL is looking for." (For their part, as Damian Cristodero of The Tampa Bay Tribune writes, the Lightning veteran players don't blame their owner for the lockout.)
On Larry Tannebaum of the Maple Leafs: "Everybody knows that the Toronto Maple Leafs would rather be playing than not playing. So what voice might he have? He's never had an axe to grind against the players," said MacKenzie.
And on Mark Chipman of the Jets, he offered, "They're a Canadian team, so they want to play, but Winnipeg's also one of those teams that's got very fine margins in terms of its market, being the smallest market in the National Hockey League. So they want to play but they also want a deal that works for them (and Ken Wiebe of The Winnipeg Sun reports the Jets players are happy Chipman will be there).
"So there's a lot of different perspectives and I think that the idea is to try and make sure that the players understand what these perspectives are and whether it's real negotiating or just an education session, we don't know but we'll find out."
And if the owners want to let the players know about their perspectives, you can expect that the players will have some perspectives of their own to communicate to the quartet making its debut at the table as well.
You have to wonder, however, if this player-owner gathering is turning out exactly the way that Bettman hoped when he suggested it. The players will still have some union staff in the room, which wasn't part of his original thinking. And the fact that Rangers owner Jim Dolan, who is believed to be a foe of the lockout, had sources leak to Larry Brooks of The New York Post that he wanted in on the talks (and was excluded) was a reminder that the owners are not as united as Bettman wants to portray.
Will this all result in renewed and productive negotiations? Not too many are holding out hope of that, not even McKenzie, who works hard to keep an even keel amidst all the spinning and propaganda from each side. "I don't want to be too cynical about the whole thing," he said Monday morning, "but it's hard not to be."
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