The CBA and the sausage factory

Friday October 19th, 2012

hockey fans Wake us up when this nightmare is over: a sentiment shared by more than a few hockey fans during the lockout. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

By Stu Hackel

The NHL cancelled another swath of games on Friday, through Nov. 1. Do you care? Have your eyes just glassed over, your ears become so full of this stuff that the words -- well-meaning as they may be -- and numbers just bounce right out?

At a certain point in this process of the NHL arriving at a new collective bargaining agreement, a big chunk of fans have just thrown up their hands and said, "I've had enough." The claims and counterclaims, the blizzard of statistics and dollar figures, the same arguments over and over again, the threats and the responses, and the perceived lack of progress all becomes too much. And this week, just when it appeared that there might be some hope of a settlement, the floor dropped out beneath us again and now there is news of more games being axed. No one can be blamed for wanting to get off this roller coaster and let it ride on without them.

And yet...and yet...perhaps there is some light amidst the darkness.

When the owners this week proposed a new deal that, for the first time, said they'd accept a 50-50 split of Hockey Related Revenue, the players agreed on the target. However, they used some other formulas to reach it. Different versions of 50-50? Sounds crazy. Well, no one has ever -- ever -- said that NHL economics are sane. Still, never in all these months of haggling had the sides reached some sort of rough agreement on the portions each would receive. Now they merely (merely!) need to agree on a formula.

"Good luck with that, guys," you say, waiving your hand in farewell. "Call me when you've got that figured out."

It could be soon; it could be a long time.

This is the world of collective bargaining, which is certainly not a spectator sport, even if this negotiation is all about spectator sports. The stars of the CBA process don't really care if you watch them or not; in fact, they probably prefer you don't. Most of what they do is away from the cameras. But the more you see and the more you pay attention, the more you understand the truth in the famous quote that's often wrongly attributed to Otto von Bismarck: "Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made." The quote and the source may be apocryphal, the sentiment is not. Making the law for NHL labor relations is ugly business, a horror show with blood, bone, muscle and fat strewn and splattered about. It's not for everyone.

But it is the main business of the two executive chefs in this sausage factory. For those who have wondered for years why Gary Bettman -- a man whose feel for the game itself remains suspect after two decades -- is the Commissioner of the National Hockey League, his masterful performance as the owners' lead negotiator should provide the answer. The owners could have no better advocate fighting on their behalf for every penny.

And those who criticize Don Fehr's every move and question motives in taking the job as executive director of the NHLPA should really cease their carping. When you listen to the players (here's Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Shane Doan on Thursday) and even former players who were involved in the last lockout (like Jamie McLennan and Mike Johnson here on TSN), speak about how well they are represented in these talks, it's impossible for any objective observer to not marvel at how he has unified this group and democratized a union that had been dysfunctional for so much of its history, dating back to the days of Alan Eagleson.

Bettman and Fehr are both tough negotiators and they have a tough task before them, trying to bring some sort of fiscal sanity to this league while simultaneously representing the opposed interests of their constituents.  They thrive in this environment. It's what they do. For rest of us, including the people these guys represent, it's torture.

As evidence, witness this week's episode of negotiations. The owners tendered an offer that, in addition to talk of the 50-50 split, tried to address one of the players' biggest concerns: the NHLPA wants the owners to honor existing signed contracts by paying them in full. The league's negotiators thought they had a plan for that and Mr. Bettman even announced a tempting scenario by which, if the players agreed, the whole season could be played if a settlement were quickly reached.

Everyone got excited. The players, the fans, the media. On Tuesday, before having seen the proposal, Blackhawks captain Toews was supposedly "encouraged." Salvation was at hand!

And then the NHLPA read the fine print and there was a catch. The mechanism the owners proposed to somehow get to 50-50 AND honor the contracts didn't quite work and that didn't fly with the players once they examined it. Let's not go into the details here; you've had enough. (If you've still got the stomach for it, this post chronicled the union's reservations). By Wednesday, Toews had changed his tune. The cowboy standing at the pass where the posse was poised to head off the Fehr Gang, Jonathan frantically waved his arms and warned, "Go back! It's a trap!"

And the mistrust between the two camps flared up again.

The players countered with new proposals of their own (outlined here in an NHLPA memo), that had their own versions of the 50-50 split, and the league rejected them very quickly, because they didn't really mean 50-50 the way the owners see it, irritating the players even more (as this TSN video shows with comments from Josh Gorges, Brian Gionta and Taylor Hall). Bettman especially, and even the more even-tempered Fehr at points, were barely able to contain their anger, although it very well could be you can't have both a 50-50 split of HRR and honor the contracts without doing some chopping somewhere.

Welcome to the sausage factory.

Let's stop for a second and think about the emotions involved when, after weeks of impasse, word reached the players that the league was ready to satisfy their main concern only to find out that it was an illusion, intentional or not. Now, this would be the perfect place to embed video of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles singing "The Love I Saw In You Was Just A Mirage" or even the Foundations' late '60s hit that everyone sings along with: "Why do you build me up (build me up), Buttercup baby, just to let me down (let me down), and mess me around...." That's how the players had to feel -- and it's possible that raising their anxiety level is part of what the NHL is attempting to achieve in hopes that it will soften their resolve. I don't know if that's true and I don't know if it will work if it is true, but it's a tactic that experienced negotiators are known to use, like when a fisherman reels in his catch. He repeatedly gives some slack and then pulls tight. No one -- not rugged NHL players nor the fans who want to see them play again -- are immune to having their emotions jerked around. The fans can walk away from it but the players cannot.

It's too soon to judge what the impact of this week's events will be on the process. One of the positives that came out of Thursday was that the PA pledged to accept 50-50 if the existing contracts are honored. And according to Pierre LeBrun over TSN and on, a league source told him the owners told the PA they are willing to rework the mechanism by which they'd make good on the existing contracts in a way the PA might find acceptable. That sounded as if the sides are closer than they've ever been.

But as Fehr indicated in his most recent memo to the players, which came to light after LeBrun's story, there's a catch to that, too: They'd have to accept the NHL's current offer before the league would consider refining that mechanism. Give some slack, pull tight. This convoluted path the sides have taken to get here makes its unclear if the parties trust each others intentions. The only way to find out is to keep talking. Unfortunately, Bettman and his posse hightailed it out of Toronto tout suite after meeting the press.

Yes, this is the world of collective bargaining. A sausage factory. In some ways, a nightmare. If you've had enough, you're excused. Someone will surely wake you when it's over.

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