If he wanted to, Gary Bettman could end the lockout by the time you finish reading this.
Not just because he is commissioner, but because he -- and the NHL -- have already won. Look at what is happening. The league is getting its 50/50 split. It is getting term limits on contracts. Both sides are haggling over length, but we know it is going to happen.
The $300-million "make-whole" provision may be off the table for now, but anyone who has ever negotiated anything knows that doesn't mean it's out of play for good. It probably depends on the length of the collective bargaining agreement.
NHL teams are still very curious to hear what the transition rules are going to be, but if you look at it objectively, compare the expired agreement to what we're looking at now. The biggest gains are being made by the NHL. There is no other way to look at it. For the second time in eight years, your winner, on paper, will be the owners.
And there's the problem.
Back in 2005, most of us thought the NHL Players' Association got clobbered. Membership splintered as the salary cap was rammed down its members' throats, but the NHL was so excited about the macro victory that it forgot to sweat the small stuff.
That's where the league was outsmarted.
Bettman is determined not to let that happen again. He wants a total victory, as loophole-proof a CBA as he can get, so those dastardly agents and general managers can't figure out ways around it.
Yet there's something nagging at me here.
Impossible to read
It started during last Thursday's angry media conference and continued this Wednesday, when deputy commissioner Bill Daly made a brief statement following hours of failed mediation. Bettman and Daly just don't look right. They don't look like guys who are about to win. The last 20 years have been such an education for me and one of the things I've learned is that experienced, hard negotiators know when they are about to win.
They can smell it and you can see it. Not here. Not yet.
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, on the other hand, looks the same as he always does. His public mannerisms, facial expressions and comportment haven't changed one iota since this began. I'm looking at him and wondering what his play is. What's he up to?
Most people think it's to wait until the last possible second. That may turn out to be true, but I think the NHL is wondering, too. It's impossible to get a read on Fehr. He's really frustrating them.
It's not as hard, though, to read the body language of his players. As they left Wednesday's mediation, the frustration was obvious.
So close, yet so far.
I've written and said it many times, but the biggest surprise to me about all of this is how badly the NHL misunderstood the mentality of its players. To be successful in this league, you have to be hardhearted and tough. You can be the salt of the earth off the ice, but on it there is no room for weakness. Weak players and weak teams do not succeed. If you push one of them, you push all of them. That is who they are bred to be.
Why should we expect any differently in a CBA negotiation?
Fehr is empowered right now because his membership is angry. Oh, the players have cooled down a little bit since last week, but they're still unhappy. There are some dissenters, yes, some guys who want to sign and play now, but it's my guess that, unless there is some movement on the term limits and contracting issues, they will order Fehr to take it to the cliff and see what happens. If they concede, it won't be until late (or they decertify, which may be worse).
So, here are the questions I'd be asking if I was sitting in the commissioner's chair:
Do you want to be Thelma to Fehr's Louise as the car heads to the cliff? (If you haven't seen the ending, I can send you the DVD). Do your sponsors want that? Does anyone, besides the hardest of hardliners?
Is it really worth the wait?
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