The old adage is "it's not what you say, it's how you say it," but when it comes to the NHL's labour negotiations with the players' union, it could be argued that it's when you say it.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Wednesday that he believes comparing the work stoppage which wiped out the 2004-05 season to the current labour negotiations is essentially an exercise in futility.
Despite that claim, examining the language used by Bettman in these two periods of negotiations turned out to be an exercise in both contrast and similarities. That's because while the issues may not exactly be the same, the end result could very well become a mirror image.
Comments made near the all-star break
Gary Bettman to reporters on Feb. 7, 2004, in St. Paul, Minn.:
"Just over seven months remain before the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. That is plenty of time for a successful negotiation and I am hopeful that we can achieve one without disruption.
"We understand each other but the fact of the matter is, until the union is willing to acknowledge and address the economic problems we're having, the ones that most of you chronicle on a regular basis, the ones that our fans talk to us about, the negotiations are not going to progress."
Gary Bettman to reporters in Anaheim on Jan. 19, 2012:
"My guess is, at some point, we'll probably sit down — assuming the union's comfortable doing that. There's a pretty steep learning curve in terms of the business and the union's standpoint [of] what the players are focused on, and we've been respectful of that process. Whenever they're ready, we're ready. We've been ready."
Breakdown: The focal points of these statements are the issue of time left to complete a deal, with 2012 Bettman seeming to be more anxious to get down to business but 2004 Bettman stressing that the union wouldn't dig its head out of the sand on what the league said were key issues.
On the eve of the Stanley Cup final
Gary Bettman to reporters on May 25, 2004, in Tampa, Fla.:
"These negotiations are not just about next season. It is next season and all the ones that will follow. It's about the future of our game.
"...we are not prepared to operate this way anymore. It doesn't matter how we got here. I don't blame the union or the players. We are where we are."
Gary Bettman to reporters on May 30, 2012 in New Jersey:
Re: Speculation about the certainty of a lockout and whether there is any reason to believe that that a deal can be done in time:
"I don't understand both the speculation and the degree of negativity that it connotes considering we, meaning the league and the [NHLPA], have yet to have a substantive discussion on what we may each be looking for in collective bargaining.
"If somebody is suggesting it, it's either because there's something in the water, people still have the NBA and NFL on the brain, or they're just looking for news on a slow day. It is nothing more than speculation at this point. There can't be any substance to it because there haven't been any substantive conversations."
"We're in a completely different situation [than in 2004]. There's a new [union] executive director who has gotten himself up to speed, new people, new relationships. Time will tell how this all sorts out. I'm hopeful that it sorts out easily because labour peace is preferable to the alternative."
Breakdown: It seemed that the league arrived at its conclusion that it needed a new way of doing business by the 2004 Cup final. In 2012, the language used seemed to imply the two sides hadn't gotten far enough to reach such an impasse.
The reception given to NHLPA proposals
Gary Bettman to reporters on June 25, 2004, in Raleigh, N.C.:
"I will give you the same response that I gave you the two times the union made the proposal — the proposal doesn't address our problems. The proposal is flawed in many respects including the assumptions that it makes."
Gary Bettman to reporters on Aug. 15, 2012, in Toronto:
"There's obviously been an acknowledgement that we have issues. There has been an acknowledgement, or an acceptance if you will, that we're going to have a cap system. But, in terms of how we're looking at the world, and I say this on a broader sense as it relates to the game and the health and everything else, we're not on the same page."
Breakdown: It's two different ways of saying "no dice, NHLPA." However, the 2012 version seems more conciliatory since the commissioner says it seems the union accepts that they're all living in a salary cap world.
Apples and oranges?
The difference in the CBAs between North American professional sports leagues has also been a hot topic during discussions in 2004 and 2012. It's also been looked at slightly differently in both cases:
Gary Bettman to reporters on Feb. 15, 2004, in St. Paul, Minn.:
"One has nothing to do with the other. Our economics are not baseball's economics. Our game is not baseball's game. Our owners are not baseball's owners, with one or two exceptions. Our union is not baseball's union.
"What we do has to be crafted and suited to address hockey, to address the NHL, to address our 30 teams and our 700-plus players."
Gary Bettman to reporters on Aug. 15, 2012, in Toronto:
"I think it's fair to say that we value the [union's] proposal and what it means in terms of its economics differently than the players' association does. And, I think there are still a number of issues where we're looking at the world differently. I'm not sure that there has yet been recognition of the economics in our world, and I mean the greater world and the sports industry, taking into account what recently happened with the NFL and the NBA.
"And, so there is still a wide gap between us with not much time to go … I do think it's fair to say that the sides are still apart, far apart, have different views of the world and the issues."
Breakdown: Bettman's comment in 2012 uses the imagery of work stoppage in other leagues to make his point, while in 2004 he dismissed the notion the NHL should follow in the footsteps of the MLB, saying it needs to plot its own course.
Overall, these two CBA negotiations are their own entities, and the language that really matters to fans during the 2012 talks has yet to come. Those quotes will come from a press conference announcing an agreement and the start of the season, or from one held on the Sept. 15 deadline; the eight-year anniversary of the 2004 lockout.