By Stu Hackel
With owners and players holed up in a midtown New York hotel, it appears that real progress to end the 81 Day NHL lockout is being made for the first time. The elongated and excruciating process that brought us to this point, where there is finally movement off entrenched positions and toward agreement, has taken its toll on everyone -- owners, players, fans, arena workers, bar and restaurant personnel, sponsors, licensees and even the media. "People are absolutely miserable," Elliotte Friedman wrote in a CBC.ca column on Tuesday, sounding as if even he was ready to throw himself headlong into traffic on the 401.
Almost no one, it seemed, held out hope that the owners-players meetings without Gary Bettman and Don Fehr would yield any progress, and I was among the hopeless. Of course, there's no deal yet and there won't be until both parties find ways to agree on some pretty sticky matters. In fact, a number of observers continue to express extreme caution, as SI's Sarah Kwak does here, and with good reason. Pierre LeBrun of TSN and ESPN tweeted prior to Wednesday evening's talks, "Warm and fuzzy feelings from last night are gone. Things are tense heading into tonight's meeting. Pivotal session that will tell the tale."
Here are the updates from TSN and USA Today heading into Thursday evening's talks with Don Fehr and Gary Bettman returning and crunch time upon us. "I can tell you there's been a hugely negative vibe emanating from both sides right now," TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeted. "Keeping this process on rails today will be challenging."
But when Maple Leafs owner Larry Tannenbaum, one of the owners currently negotiating with the players says, as he did Wednesday afternoon, "We’re going to continue to talk up until we get a deal,” that is a vastly different sentiment from what we heard from both sides for the last five months, which was more along the lines of "We're not hearing what we want, so we're not talking."
What has changed from earlier this week? On Monday, few, if any, gave credence to Steve Burton of WBZ-TV in Boston when he reported on Monday night that secret high-level meetings over the weekend led to progress and the lockout could be over as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday.
It did seem impossible that things could turn around that quickly, not to mention that Burton is not considered a member of the hockey cognoscenti. How could he know these things? Let's save that part of the mystery for later.
If and when the history of the 2012 lockout is written, we might get a more authoritative account of how this sea change occurred. For now, here are some plausible explanations, submitted (as the Twilight Zone's Rod Serling used to say) for your consideration.
Theory 1: The NHL was always going to make an early December deal. Many portrayed the hardline owners as willing to sacrifice the entire season to get what they wanted in a new CBA. From the outset, they negotiated that way. If Theory 1 is true, however, they are far more cynical than principled. Former NHL executive and coach Doug MacLean, an owners' supporter who is now with Sportsnet, claimed on Wednesday during the "Hockey Central" program (cited by David Staples of The Edmonton Journal) that he heard six weeks ago that the NHL’s position was “it is knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out until December 1st, and then at December 1st we’re getting a deal done.”
The NHLPA, too, often claimed that the owners indeed were operating on a timetable, the "playbook" used by the NBA and NFL in their recent lockouts in which each of them followed a certain path until at some point, seemingly without warning, progress ensued leading to an agreement.
You'll recall Frank Seravalli's story in The Philadelphia Daily News that reported Flyers owner Ed Snider had become disenchanted with the lockout, a report that Snider denied and the NHL called fabricated. "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," Seravalli wrote. "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."
We may not know where Snyder's sympathies truly lie and, as we wondered in November, whether he moved from hardliner to moderate or even "dove." But in the absence of a Dec. 1 delivery for an owner-friendly CBA, it's possible the owners as a group shifted to Plan B.
Theory 2: "Moderates" on each side took over the negotiating process.: This is a variant on Theory 1, that when Dec. 1 passed and the hardliners couldn't deliver, the lack of movement in negotiations caused them to lose their credibility with the rest of the group, who didn't want the season sacrificed. The Moderates, this theory holds, managed to seize control of the process, with some, like Snider, perhaps shifting camps.
In numerous radio segments since the negotiations started, NBC's and SI's Pierre McGuire frequently said there could be no deal until the moderates on both sides took control of the talks. Looks like he could be right.
In our post on the Tuesday meeting, we referenced Bob McKenzie's analysis of the four new owners joining the talks -- Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle, Tampa Bay's Jeff Vinik, Winnipeg's Mark Chipman, and Tannenbaum -- and none of them were identified as hardliners like Boston's Jeremy Jacobs and Calgary's Murray Edwards, the holdovers from the original owners' group that included Bettman. All had reasons not to sacrifice the season and they now seem in control of the talks from the league's side, at least for the moment. Many, including this blogger, thought the presence of Jacobs and Edwards in the re-formed owners group meant they'd continue their hardline stance. Silly me. Jacobs hasn't become a moderate (he tried to lead an owners' walkout of negotiations Wednesday night), but now it just looks like he and Edwards stuck around to ensure the new quartet didn't give away the store.
On the union's side, the 18 players who walked into the room on Tuesday embraced a mix of sentiments, judging by their public statements. If players like Marty St. Louis (who helped shape the last NHLPA proposal that offered more concessions to owners but was rejected) were bitterly disappointed last month and either became more militant or found that their moderate views had lost some credibility among those involved in this process, they rediscovered their voices on Tuesday.
That leads to....
Theory 3: The Penguin Effect. For a few weeks, as Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Rob Rossi reported Tuesday, Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle had been talking with team captain Sidney Crosby and "privately discussed plans to bridge the gap between players and owners." Now, since this is against the owners' rules, those conversations never really happened (wink, wink) and you know that with Crosby living at Mario's place again while his own house is having some work done, it's taken all of Lemieux's prodigious straighten to stay silent. Anyway, in the real world, sources told Rossi that "all three had grown frustrated with the lack of progress." What each man's role was in getting this meeting together is unclear; all that has been reported was their presence in Tuesday's sessions as voices of reason on each side, helping to establish trust between the players and owners, something that has been nearly absent since July. But it's hard to believe that they just arrived in New York and everything magically fell into place. They likely engaged in a good deal of preparatory work before Tuesday that helped change the direction of these negotiations, along with Crosby's agent Pat Brisson, one of the most highly regarded player agents in the business, Lemieux's own agent when he played and one of 66's closest friends.
Theory 4: The absence e of Bettman and Fehr: It was reportedly Gary's idea to get the two lead negotiators out of the room and see if that changes the chemistry. From there, it morphed into changing the composition of the owners' delegation, which may not have been part of Bettman's original concept, but it happened nevertheless. Might it have been a condition of Fehr's agreeing to Bettman's notion? That's unknown, but here's the thing: Both negotiators came into these talks undefeated, both excellent at getting their way.
But like two chess grand masters, they could only play to a standoff. There wasn't going to be a lot of give (although Fehr's more democratic approach to leading the NHLPA did mean he had to allow the players to offer concessions in their last proposal against his wishes). In that atmosphere, a deal wasn't going to get done. While each side accused the other of not wanting to make an agreement, both actually wanted one, but not something that would be unfavorable to their constituents. The gap was too large, and so was the wariness between the two leaders, and that wouldn't permit any further bending. Things were going to have to change in order to thaw the process. Bettman and Fehr recognized that -- or someone strongly suggested that to them -- and both retreated to the caucus rooms, where they helped shape the discussion and advise those who are at the table.
All indications are that they are both going to return to the table on Thursday (at the PA's insistence, believing Fehr is essential to player unity, diffusing antagonisms with the owners and guiding the discussion) and the deals won't be reached without them. But things got moving again in their absence and we'll see what their return does to the process.
Theory 5A: The calendar: This was a main point coming out of Tuesday night's TSN panel of James Duthie, Darren Dreger, Pierre LeBrun and Bob McKenzie (video), which was largely articulated by McKenzie. It's something of a variation on Theory 1. If these sides wanted to have a season, if they really did want to make a deal, time was getting away from them. While each side professed to have already presented its best offer, it was thought that each had more to give (see Theory 4), but was not going to do it until absolutely necessary. A credible season of around 50-60 games was the goal, but with the owners ready to talk about hanging "Closed for the season" signs on their arenas, now was the time to play those cards.
A second reason that McKenzie mentioned, especially for the owners, is Theory Five B: The threat of decertification. As we discussed before, this complicated and risky process -- the CBA version of pulling your goalie -- can potentially throw everything into chaos and, from the league's standpoint, expose it to anti-trust litigation. No one fully knows what going down that decertification path would mean, but no one wants to find out, either.
Now, if you've gotten this far, bravo! And if you've been paying close attention all these months (and maybe even if you haven't) you've probably already figured out these theories -- and maybe a few more factors like the fear of further alienating fans, the damage to the business, the anger of the sponsors -- are more or less interrelated. They might best be digested if they are all tossed into a big bowl, mixed well, splashed with some oil and vinegar and, voila! You have the salad that is the recent history of these negotiations. Right now, we only see them as little pieces of the whole mix. We might see some broad outlines of how they fit together. But until the deal is done, assuming that things don't blow up entirely, we're can't begin to get a sense of the full meal and how good, or bad, it tastes.
Now, knowing what we do, let's get back to Steve Burton and connect some dots.
Obviously someone told him that something had changed before the players and owners walked into that hotel conference room on Tuesday without their lead negotiators. The "unannounced meeting" with "a high-level official from each side" he mentioned might have been Steve Fehr and Bill Daly; it might have been Sidney Crosby and Ron Burkle, but only a very small number of people would know that. That same small number would also know that the moderate owners would now be controlling the agenda, that their goal was going to be to get a deal done as quickly as possible and, taking into account the factors listed above, a new CBA might not be not far off. Someone in that little coterie of folks knows Steve Burton.
OK, fans. Let's play a little Red Light CSI: We know the city where Burton works; it has a prominent NHL team (a member of which, Milan Lucic, conveniently showed up in Burton's report to say how great the news is). Who from that club might be in the clique of those in the know on top secret CBA doings? There are no Bruins players involved in these talks. Could it be...the team owner, the most powerful member of the league's Board of Governors? Yes, it's quite plausible to speculate that someone connected with Mr. Jacobs, if not the man himself, tipped off Steve Burton and gave him what could be the hockey scoop of the year.
Maybe not. But maybe.
And maybe with this dramatic change in direction in the talks, we're on our way to a season. Maybe not.
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