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NHL’s CBA rollercoaster rolls on

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Gary Bettman

Commissioner Gary Bettman was furious and on the attack after talks collapsed again. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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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  • Published On Dec 07, 2012
  • 25 comments
    brstordy
    brstordy

    Why doesn't this group of selfish wealthy individuals think about those employees who work at the arenas, restaurants etc. These people depend on their jobs that have been in jeopardy for well over 12 weeks. This is a serious situation that requires both sides to bring the greatest sport back home to center ice. I thought you are supposed to treat your neighbor like yourself. The employees and fans of North America ask for your assistance to save the greatest sport from ridicule and make a deal for our youth who look at their role models everyday but don't understand why "they are arguing". This situation requires serious people that will get the CBA approved or the NHLPA & NHL will lose a huge fan base for years.

    CobyPreimesberger
    CobyPreimesberger

    i think the reason is becuase of the time of day that it would be on the middle of the which works for soccer but not so much for hockey.  Look if you ask me bettman and fehr when this lockout ever ends both need to be fired or we will be back here 8 years from now, as that is going to happen 10 year deal with an opt-out of 8, what you need are people who care for the game, which is why you need a former player as the commish and not some refugee from the NBA which what Bettman was

    Big_Lew
    Big_Lew

    I'm getting SO tired of the owner's antics.

     

    How many times have they said to the union: "This offer on the table now is non-negotiable. Take it or leave it as it sits. And if you don't sign it now, we'll pull it off the table."

     

    The players don't want to negotiate that way, and I don't blame them one bit. It's not negotiation anyway - it's blackmail! Don Fehr wouldn't let 'em anyway!

     

    So the players say: "No".

     

    The owners storm off in a huff. But sooner or later they're back, with *minor* movement off the previous, so-called "non-negotiable" offer.

     

    Why didn't the owners negotiate in the first place? Why is every offer the "final" offer, and non-negotiable at that?

     

    My loathing for these greedy men is growing day by day.

    coljessup007
    coljessup007

    Did anyone else hear that if the Union disbands that there are a group of wealthy individuals that are going to start thei own league? 24 teams. AND NO GARY!!!!

    allwaysrite
    allwaysrite

    Do you think a voice mail message is the way to communicate a message of that magnitude?  I think it shows a lack of respect not only for the "process" but also to the NHLPA.  Gary Bettman may proclaim his professionalism but when push comes to shove, his actions fall far short of that target.

    d3
    d3

     they are way to concerned about who the fans should blame instead of being concerned if there is going to be anyone left to do the blaming.  go away NHL you are the most annoying thing in sports.

    MarkAlanParker
    MarkAlanParker

    I'm done with the NHL. Been a fan since I was a teenager, but no more. No more money out of my pocket (or my family). Greed has (once again) ruined something good. I look for teams like Columbus, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and maybe my (ex) team Nashville - to fold. It was a hard sell before, but now it's suicide. Good riddance.

    fegero
    fegero

    I couldn't stick to tradition, I finally broke!  It's been my tradition to buy chocolate almond ice cream and have it while watching Sabre games.  So far this hockey season I haven't eaten any.  On Wednesday I went out and bought some.  I held out as long as I could but now I'm enjoying my ice cream while watching t.v. no matter what the show is.   (Don't worry, I'm still keeping it to one, maybe two times a week.)

    Johnrock
    Johnrock

    Its the natural cycle of business. You create a product and market it so that everyone wants it. You increase the price if the market place can absorb it. Eventually someone comes up with a better product or the product becomes too costly to it's conceived worth by the purchaser. That purchaser will start buying less or even switching to another product that he/she perceives a better buy.

    In the NHL's case I agree that the product is outdated and too costly for what you get! I hope some cable channel gets it and starts broadcasting Junior hockey instead of NHL games even when they finally get it together and make a deal. Then the markets can really make a difference and show both sides of " too rich to understand people" that their insanity is costly even to them.

     

     

    TacoCat
    TacoCat

    I give up! It took participation in the Olympics to get me interested in the NHL after the last lock out. Other things have filled up my calendar, not sure if I'll ever come back to this game if the season gets cancelled. I'll stick to the OHL and AHL for my hocky fix.  The two IOU Avalance tickets my wife got me for my birthday can now go towards something else...I've been wanting a new tennis racquet anyways.

    barowner
    barowner

    It was an incredible day--only a person can be incredulous.

    WillWillis1
    WillWillis1

    I wonder what effect it would have on the NHL if someone like ESPN were to obtain rights and begin broadcasting the top European leagues? The international game with its larger rink makes for more open area for skill players, leading to generally more exciting gameplay overall. ESPN is clearly seeing value in broadcasting European soccer, which is even more of a niche in the U.S. than hockey, so why not European hockey?

    gotha264
    gotha264

    I am getting this great book for Christmas written by Gary Bettman, "How to ruin a professional sports league 101."  It gives great tips on how to take a billion dollar franchise and make it a laughing stock while alienating all of its fans!

    DougHayen
    DougHayen

    Goodbye idiots!!!  I am done.  I have been a fan for over 40 years.  I will find something else.  Hope Fehr & Bettman rot in hell and if I ever have the misfortune of meeting you two I will spit in your face.  Lost all respect, even if you do play again you have damaged the greatest sport and cannot repair. 

    Pymster
    Pymster

    I would have to agree with cakasabian. There comes a point when enough IS enough. What would no pro hockey do to college hockey? Probably not a lot. Fans would spend money on college sports, and maybe the schools could decrease tuition....we all need pipe dreams. RIP NHL.

    cakasabian
    cakasabian

    At this point I don't personally care if the NHL exists or not.  I've been saying for years that college hockey is far more exciting than the NHL, but I suppose that depends on whether or not you're impressed by someone's salary.   Anyway, it'll be very interesting to see this play out.  Like most, I hope the fans don't show but unlike most, I will not spend a dime on anything NHL.  As a matter of fact, I'm going to keep a list of whoever sponsers the NHL via commercials and boycott them as well.  Just because I can, not that it'll make a difference.  After what both sides have done to the league they can have it.

    JoRyanSalazar1
    JoRyanSalazar1

    I'm from Los Angeles and this is awesome drama. Next scene, please.

    DaveDelage
    DaveDelage

    I'm not concerned about the owners, players or even fans. The first two lose money the fans just spend it elsewhere. I am concerned about the arena staff, concessionaires, parking lot guys, restaurant staff, hotel staff, etc. These are people with thin wallets that are getting even thinner. Have none of the NHL  "adults" heard of arbitration? Sure, they may not get the deal that they can get in the room, maybe. But the money they won't lose by playing now will certainly make up for what they might lose in arbitration. 

    jsokol1626
    jsokol1626

     @coljessup007 Pipe dreams, my friend. It takes a lot more than wealth to create a hockey league.

    Big_Lew
    Big_Lew

     @allwaysrite AWR - you're not surprised by this, are you?

     

    Think about it - from the beginning, the league ownership has acted in an irrational fashion. The NHL's first "offer" started things off in a poisonous atmosphere, and it's been downhill ever since.

     

    If a PERSON acted the way the league has, we would be using terms like: "passive-agressive" and "borderline psychotic" to describe their behavior!

     

    I think the player's capitulation under Goodenow after the '04 - '05 lockout planted the seeds for the owner's current strategy. Back then, the owners played hardball, and they eventually they got their way. THIS time, the players hired someone whom the owners KNEW they weren't going to be able to railroad - Don Fehr! That severely rattled the owners, and they've been scurrying about like so many Chicken Littles throughout this latest process.

     

    They have demonstrated ZERO respect for the players, the Union leadership, the sport of hockey, their so-called "business partners" (NBC Sports, etc.), and the unfortunate small businesses and working people hurt by "collateral damage".

     

    And BTW - it's SO disingenuous that the league got what they wanted last time, then the OWNERS promptly set about inventing ways to circumvent THEIR OWN RULES, and now they're crying poor and demanding that the PLAYERS make FURTHER concessions to protect them from THEMSELVES!

     

    It's hands-down the greediest, most hypocritical, most reprehensible series of actions I've ever seen in professional sports!

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @barowner Yeah, that's what my editor said, too. I'll change it. Thanks for the grammar lesson.

    reedand
    reedand

     @WillWillis1 Excellent point and a plan I hope sees the light of day. The game improved 100% when more Euros camein to NHL a couple of decades ago and opened up the flow. It would be great to watch Euro hockey now and maybe forever more!

    Big_Lew
    Big_Lew

     @gotha264 It's a 3.3 BILLION dollar professional sports league!

    me1
    me1

     @jsokol1626  @coljessup007 All it takes is talented players...and the cream of the crop will not come back to the NHL if the owners do not honor existing contracts. New talent will not limit their ability to increase their paycheck by signing long term contracts if given another option. The NHL is blind to the reality that faces them. They are thinking about this in the same light as how they are dealing with existing players. They are so convinced they have no competition...that another league is just what you are saying...a pipe dream. In reality, it would only take 6 people to start up a league...the rest of the teams will be pushing to join.

    Big_Lew
    Big_Lew

     @jsokol1626  @coljessup007 Well col... what do YOU think is the number one prerequisite for starting a new league?

     

    In my opinion it's HOCKEY TALENT!! And that's the current NHL player's value-add.

     

    If something like this were to come to pass, no doubt it would start off small, and slow. The current owners would throw every roadblock in the way that they possible could - and that's a considerable amount of difficult terrain!

     

    BUT - whenever a potential money-maker like a new league comes along, people come out of the woodwork with $$ in hand, wanting to invest, to get in on the ground floor of the "next BIG thing".

     

    Remember the internet boom of the '90's?

     

    In fact, the current owners are the most significant problem that North American professional hockey faces today. I think it's a GREAT idea for the players to jump ship en-mass, and get rid of the problem!