By Stu Hackel
It was the most incredible day yet in the NHL lockout, filled with great theater and great passion. Not much else about it could be called great, however, and the bottom line is that the NHL's collective bargaining negotiations, which only a day or two earlier looked as if they were on track have once again been thrown into disarray.
Talks are once again suspended. The schedule is once again about to be reduced. The possibility that the season will be lost is once again a growing concern and while it's not yet on life-support -- far from it -- the only doctors in the house are spin doctors and they're not curing anything.
What's the result? More fan anger and alienation, more disillusioned licensees and sponsors, and another slash to the wrists by myopic, suicidal businessmen, not to mention a lot of heat from the media.
Here are some of Day 82's absurd details: Negotiations minus Don Fehr and Gary Bettman and with a quartet of "moderate" owners joining the talks had been proceeding rather well and some good progress had been made, but the spirit of cooperation somehow evaporated (and Jesse Spector of The Sporting News traces that to the owners' opposition to the players wanting Don Fehr back in the room, something the NHL apparently could not tolerate).
Each side blames the other -- which we've all come to expect by now -- the players accusing the owners of refusing to budge on some aspects of the deal and the owners making a similar charge against the union. This round of denunciation began when the NHLPA presented a new proposal to a reduced NHL delegation of Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and outside counsel Bob Batterman that asked for compromise on supposedly non-negotiable issues and it probably didn't sit well with that duo, who left to bring the information back to league headquarters.
That sparked a press conference by Don Fehr at the midtown Manhattan hotel where the meetings had been, and many expected bad news. However, surrounded by players and flanked by superstars Sidney Crosby and Brad Richards -- an image designed to refute the owners' occasional allegation that star players were not heavily involved in the process -- Fehr instead traced the latest progress, said the sides were in agreement or very close to it on many key points -- including money, had work to do on a few others, and had not discussed one key area. Here's the video of his remarks. He repeated his frequent sentiment that the players have continued to make concessions, but he felt the whole magila could actually be wrapped up shortly.
It's unclear how much Fehr honestly believed that was how things would play out -- after all, why was he discussing details of the talks when most often there is silence if things are going well? One got the distinct impression that if the sides were all that close, he'd have been standing shoulder to shoulder with someone from the league (as his brother Steve had on Tuesday with Daly). But this was the message he wanted sent to the fans and the media, and the mood brightened considerably.
Fehr's press conference ended, the players were doing interviews with the media, expressing cautious optimism when suddenly, just a few minutes later, word came that Fehr was returning to the room for a second press conference. "What could it possibly mean?" wondered the attending reporters and hockey's anxious Twitterverse. Turns out that during the first press conference, Daly had left a message on Steve Fehr's phone saying the league had rejected the players' latest proposal, all recent offers from the owners were now withdrawn, and the NHLPA could call him, maybe.
Everything immediately turned around and soon enough the double-barreled shotgun of Gary Bettman and Daly was in front of the same hotel microphones, blasting away at everything Fehr had said (and you can watch that here, here and here). They argued against Fehr's characterization that the sides were that close, especially on matters of extreme importance to the owners -- length of individual player contracts (the owners want them short, the players want them longer) and length of the CBA (the owners want it long, the players want it shorter) on which the owners must have their way. They amped up the rhetoric considerably by, for example, relaying how insulted the "moderate" owners who had joined the process became in response to the PA's tactics. They blamed Don Fehr for wanting to get back to the negotiating table (even though it was the players who wanted him back), and even questioned whether good chemistry with the union was possible since the PA had gone through four executive directors in eight years.
And, naturally, Bettman added that it was the owners who had done all the bending in these talks and the players had not bent at all, which caused Harrison Mooney, blogger for Yahoo's Puck Daddy and The Vancouver Sun, to cleverly tweet, "Bettman: 'We kept giving and giving and giving.' Fehr: 'The players have done the lion's share of the movement.' #SeasonOfGiving"
The spinning began in earnest, with the four "moderate" owners -- Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle, Tampa Bay's Jeff Vinik, Toronto's Larry Tanenbaum and Winnipeg's Mark Chipman -- providing statements of disappointment and blaming the union leadership. The usual surrogates for each side began to advocate for their perspectives as well, which really does nothing to alter where this process is right now. Most fans who are still paying attention don't care who is at fault. The messages are designed to persuade the media in the faint hope that they can somehow sway the opposite side. What's said in the media matters very little, however; the only thing that counts is what is said at the bargaining table.
The practiced words of Bettman on the season's future expressed the sentiment that he's never had target dates on his calendar to scrap the entire schedule, that the only deadline he said he cared about was October 8, when the season should have started. Funny, that: If he was so concerned about October 8, he might have presented a more palatable opening offer to the players. But he did admit that he would not agree to a campaign that had less than 48 games, the number of games in the abbreviated 1995 season, which began on Jan. 20. So we still have some weeks to go before the whole thing is flushed.
Still, it borders on insanity that this business will suffer more damage as the clock ticks toward that last pressure point. Maybe these antagonists can salvage the season, maybe not. By then it may not matter.
After he had received Daly's voice mail, Steve Fehr told reporters he had never seen anything like this happen before in labor negotiations. Welcome to the NHL, Steve. This is how we roll. And with the last four expired deals leading to three lockouts and a strike, we should all be used to it by now. There's drama, there's fervor, there's venom, there's wild emotional ups and downs. It's just like great hockey -- except without sticks, pucks, skates, ice, uniforms, zambonis, fans and, unfortunately, referees to get the boys to play nice. If the frequent hostility is off-putting, we should be used to that, too.
But we're not used to any of it because this is one lockout that never should have happened.
Within all the rhetoric, it was the commissioner who uttered the most truthful words of this crazy day when he responded to a question during his press conference about the vanishing trust between the sides: "Collective bargaining is hard stuff and sometimes it's made even harder depending on the goals and objectives people have and organizations have. But the fact is, you have professionals in the room and, most importantly -- be it the players or the owners or the people who work for the league and the clubs -- you have people who love this game in the room and want to get it back on the ice as soon as possible."
Well said, Mr. Bettman. For the moment, however, this collective bargaining process is broken.
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