Implosion in NHL talks leaves players with few options | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in CanadaImplosion in NHL talks leaves players with few options

Posted: Friday, December 7, 2012 | 01:42 AM

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NHLPA executive director, left, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the media separately on Thursday night after failed labour talks over the last couple of days. (Getty Images/CBCSports.ca) NHLPA executive director, left, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the media separately on Thursday night after failed labour talks over the last couple of days. (Getty Images/CBCSports.ca)

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Any fan or individual affected by the NHL lockout who watched Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman's dueling media conferences deserves a "Commit One Felony For Free" card. But, as bad as that looked Thursday afternoon, and as disappointed as everyone is, this is not over.
Any fan or individual affected by the NHL lockout who watched Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman's dueling media conferences deserves a "Commit One Felony For Free" card.

But, as bad as that looked Thursday afternoon, and as disappointed as everyone is, this is not over.

With 20/20 hindsight, I thought Fehr's media conference was wrong. He knew the league was not going to accept his proposal, and, at this point, it's not right to fool around with people's emotions like that -- especially his players'. 

Bettman and Bill Daly were as angry (Bettman wildly so) as we've ever seen them publicly.

There is no doubt some owners are yelling, "Cancel the season!" at the commissioner. There is no doubt several players turned purple when Bettman brought up massages once again. There is no doubt the people in the middle (team executives, coaches, employees and some player agents) are probably cursing both of them.

But, while those people take the weekend to decompress, we can cut through the baloney.

This horrendously handled negotiation is heading towards its conclusion. Bettman fought off any questions about a drop-dead date, insisting none is set. He did admit however, that the 48-game season of 1995 (puck drop: Jan. 20) is the baseline of what he considers an acceptable schedule.

So there you go. That's what everyone in this sport stares at. No matter who you are in the game, if you really want there to be a season, you have to make sure teams can play at least 48 times. And, with more cancellations possible as soon as Friday, we're getting close to that. 

Imagine two poker players. The league is the guy going all-in, and the players have to decide if he's bluffing -- one card shy of a flush.

Three cornerstones

Bettman and Daly set up three cornerstones: 

  • a 10-year deal with a mutual re-opener after eight seasons
  • a five-year term limit on contracts (seven years for your own player) -- player contract length is the "hill we will die on," according to Daly.
  • no compliance buyouts or caps on player escrow as the NHL and NHLPA transition from the old CBA to the new one.
Daly said the NHL would not allow "cherry-picking" of these issues. They come together, they're part of the deal. So, if you're a player, your options are:

  1. The NHL is serious this time, we better do it
  2. He's full of it, either he doesn't have the stones to do it or the owners won't let it happen
  3. Let's file the "Disclaimer of Interest" and see what transpires
  4. Maybe we should get rid of Donald Fehr
  5. Take down the season
(Tim Wharnsby goes in-depth into much of this here). We're going to look at No.4, the Fehr factor.

Let's make this clear at the start. There are players who passionately believe the NHL has shown them zero respect throughout this process, doesn't seriously consider their proposals and doesn't give a crap at all about hockey.

"I think we care more for this game than anyone in this debate," one player said Thursday. 

All of this is why there is no way Bettman is ever going to be able to present the Stanley Cup once again. But, let's put that aside for a second. 

During his media conference, the commissioner was annoyed when one reporter suggested the two sides didn't trust each other.

"I don't understand what that word means," Bettman said, claiming they were just "hard negotiations."

I was surprised at that, because other members of the league's negotiating team throughout this process have sensed otherwise.

"Some of [the players] trust us, but not all of them," one said. That is one reason things went from "it might be the best day so far" (Steve Fehr on Tuesday) to an 18-car pileup 48 hours later.

Ideological differences

That negotiator said there are obvious ideological differences and that "Fehr has given them a philosophy and they've bought into it." 

Apparently, part of that is trying to convince the owners they need "lubrication in the system" -- which is sort of a code for being able to circumvent the cap. If you were a player, you'd want that too.

Quietly, the NHL has mounted an anti-Fehr smear campaign. If the players had any doubt about how angry he's made the league, it dissipated Wednesday, when the NHL made it clear "the inclusion of Fehr was a deal-breaker," said Ron Hainsey, referring to the players' wish to bring their lead negotiator back to the table. 

"I can't envision a scenario where, without the help of mediation or our leadership that we could close any deal," the Jets defenceman added. 

I think it's very dangerous to speculate on the feelings of 700-plus members, to claim the union is splitting. No media member can possibly speak to them all. But there is no doubt a portion of those players are getting restless and want to make a deal.

Is it a large enough group to force an agreement? God knows. But, what Gary Bettman and Bill Daly did this week was send a message, a message that was received overtly and quietly: maybe, just maybe, the deal gets a little better with a different leader. 

Right now, the league has very little credibility with the players. They are furious, disappointed and hurt. 

That is the NHL's greatest miscalculation throughout the lockout. You can argue the players are losing money they'll never get back. You can argue they can't beat billionaires. You can argue how incredibly stupid this whole situation is. 

You forget about emotion. Those players made it to the big leagues because they're highly competitive and react angrily when challenged/disrespected.

But, now we know it's 48 games or bust. At some point, those players are going to stare at a second lost season, turn to the person they trust most and ask, "What do you think?"

Remember your choices:

  1. The NHL is serious this time, we better do it
  2. He's full of it, either he doesn't have the stones to do it or the owners won't let it happen
  3. Let's file the "Disclaimer of Interest" and see what transpires
  4. Maybe we should get rid of Donald Fehr
  5. Take down the season
What's it going to be?

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