I am en route to New York for two potentially newsworthy days in Lockout Loopiness 2012. The no Fehr, no Bettman meeting is Tuesday afternoon with the NHL board of governors getting together Wednesday morning.
As you might expect, everyone is angry -- owners, executives, coaches, players, agents, fans, workers and sponsors. People are absolutely miserable. There is not a single positive thing you can say about the NHL right now, except joking that your favourite team is undefeated. And even that one's getting stale.
There are widely differing opinions on Tuesday's meeting. While there is some optimism in the fact that new blood will be introduced on the owners' side -- "No one wants to play more than [Pittsburgh Penguins boss] Ron Burkle," said one governor -- there is still a lot of negativity.
A lot of players want the opportunity to be in there. On one hand, that's a good thing because you want them to be engaged, but some of the moderate general managers and executives are concerned what it really means is confrontation, especially if the newly included owners simply are there to explain why the league can't move any further.
These same people worry that if this one goes off the rails, having Burkle and Larry Tanenbaum (Toronto) tell the board of governors how far apart things are will only embolden the hardliners. It's one thing for Jeremy Jacobs (Boston) and Murray Edwards (Calgary) to say it. It's quite another if Mark Chipman (Winnipeg) or Jeff Vinik (Tampa Bay) deliver that message.
Meanwhile, there is hope not just among players, but even league employees that Wednesday's board meeting will deliver a different approach or such dramatic infighting that a newer, more conciliatory path is taken.
Some guys see the possibility. Others, not so much.
"Don't bet on it," said one governor, who would be described a moderate. "I've never seen one like that ... commissioner [Gary] Bettman usually knows exactly how things are going to go before they get started."
That said, he did admit it will be interesting if someone does openly step up in opposition. Will anyone bring support? In the final board meeting prior to cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season, Tanenbaum made a passionate speech arguing for the season to be saved. He was shouted down, a response led by Kings owner Philip Anschutz who, according to Forbes, is the league's wealthiest.
In an ironic twist, there were governors curious to hear what Anschutz has to say this time since it's widely believed Los Angeles, the defending Stanley Cup champion, wants to play, but he is not expected to attend (That franchise's governor is Tim Leiweke, not exactly a shrinking violet himself).
In conversations leading to writing this blog, I was surprised at the number of people who wanted to steer me away from suggestions there are divisions among ownership and players. And it wasn't for the reasons you think. Everyone understands there are teams who want to get started and players who've had enough.
We have reached a point where the vast majority of people employed in the NHL think this is stupid. But two team executives in particular pointedly argued that stories like that damage the process. They both cringed when they saw Roman Hamrlik's anti-Don Fehr comments.
"That just gives strength to the hardliners," one said. "It gives them reason to hold out and not make a deal."
Same thing, they said, when reports of ownership division surface.
'They've proven they can say no'
Fans have felt lockout fatigue for a long time. Finally, everyone in the sport has the same weariness. For many, Tuesday's meeting is proof the leaders are incapable of making a deal.
"We know [Bettman, Don Fehr and their negotiators] are tough guys," one high-ranking team executive said. "They've proven they can say no. Congratulations.
"Now where are the people worrying about the best interests of the game? Who represents the people who've worked hard for years to make it what it is?"
Even those who are supportive of the players are sick of hearing how hated Bettman and Jacobs are. Even those who support the league are sick of hearing how Fehr only says no. They are sick and tired of the spin -- and these are prominent people inside the sport, people who understand that both sides have legitimate grievances.
They just want people brought in who can actually close this deal because right now the problem is that while players want to play, what's on the table isn't good enough to get them to say OK. Same goes for the owners. They see the finish line, but important hurdles prevent them from getting there.
What really infuriates everyone is that they look at Bettman and Fehr and say: "They've each got one more move left in them, but they're just waiting. They're waiting for the real drop-dead date."
That's why it's probably for the best if Bettman comes out of the board meeting and cancels up to Dec. 31 because then we're finally at the end. If we're not going by Jan. 15, the bet is we're not going.
Who's going to be happy with that? Just lawyers who want to set precedence in court or a law firm with a vested interest in making this go longer.
The players lose, the league loses, the sport becomes a smoking crater and the people who can least afford it get crushed. Look at the sponsors. Molson publicly admitted it's going to ask the NHL for financial remuneration. Kraft took its Hockeyville money out of the league. The NHL and NHL Players' Asssociation are giving them every reason to bail.
'We're happier with the alumni'
Here's another one. There's a big mall in north Toronto called Yorkdale. It opened a new wing last month featuring a Scotiabank branch. Hall of Fame goaltender Johnny Bower was on hand to sign autographs and fans lined up to meet him. The bank used to have deals with both the NHL and the NHLPA, but the players recently chose to go in another direction.
The bank was disappointed, but understood. It was a fair business decision. As part of its continuing NHL relationship, it was allowed to use the images of a maximum of two players per branch in their team uniforms, Jarome Iginla being a particular favourite. However, the NHLPA asked it to stop. Scotiabank could have fussed, but decided against it.
"We're happier with the alumni," said a friend of mine who works for them.
Is that seriously what everyone wants here?
This is going to go down as the "What Not To Do" negotiation taught in business schools for the next 150 years. The league complains star players aren't at the bargaining table, then walks away after 10 minutes when Sidney Crosby, Iginla and Jonathan Toews show up. The players delay negotiations, then say they'll play under the previous collective bargaining agreement when they know there's zero chance the owners are going to go for that.
It's ridiculous. It's why we are where we are.
No one's going to be happy with the final deal. Not the players, who think they've already given up too much. Not the owners, who need to fix what should have been a foolproof CBA. So get rid of the people who can't get it done. Maybe the Burkles, the Tanenbaums, the Chipmans and the Viniks succeed where others failed.
If not, it's time for the Steve Yzermans, the Joe Nieuwendyks, the Doug Wilsons, the Jim Rutherfords, the Ken Hollands, the Dean Lombardis, the Don Baizleys, the Don Meehans, the Pat Brissons, the Mike Liuts (you see where I'm going here) to take over. Those are the people who really deal with the CBA on a day-in and day-out basis. Bettman doesn't trust the GMs or the agents, but they do have one important skill -- they're dealmakers.
Last summer, a flood in my home caused $150,000 in damage. I fought like a madman with everyone involved to get that covered. My wife and family thought I went completely overboard. It was the craziness of the NHL lockout that made me realize, "What on earth am I doing? Settle down and get it done."
Now what's going to make everyone here realize the same?
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