As the 2012 NHL lockout approached its billionth week Thursday, the NHL and NHLPA took turns inflating, deflating, reflating and then bunker-busting fans’ emotions and writers’ nerves with a series of meetings, proposals, discussions and counterproposals that ultimately revealed three things:
- Real negotiating is ugly (and it wasn’t designed with Twitter in mind),
- The sides probably really are about as close as the players’ union suggested, and
- Gary Bettman and his cadre of owners have no idea how to handle the Fehr’s.
If you believe everything Bettman and Bill Daly had to say during the late-day press conference, the whole process has been set back to square one. Concessions by the NHL are now off the table, including a make-whole provision, pension funding and contracting concerns.
The right now isn’t set, but the sides are likely to take some time to lick their wounds, confer amongst themselves and generally figure out when the next do-or-not-actually-die moment of the non-season is going to approach.
It’s safe to assume that remaining December games are going to get the ax in the near future. While that’s not a death knell (the 1994-95 season was lockout shortened, to 48 games, and didn’t get underway until January 20 after a January 11 settlement), it’s certainly not good.
For that precedent, it’s still a rush to suggest that there won’t be a season.
However, the process is now in real danger of being wrested back from the moderates at the owners’ table and placed in the hands of Jacobs, Leonsis and other hardline labor-haters.
Word circulated Thursday that the NHL stood to forfeit a great deal of sponsorship revenue if less than 75 percent of the regular season schedule is actually played, and the deadline for creating a 62-game schedule that doesn’t extend into next October probably flew out the window with whatever goodwill remained from Tuesday’s informal player-owner meetings.
If that money incentive is off the owners’ plate—and what other incentive do they ever have, really?—the next meeting could get ugly in a hurry.
What’s likely to take shape now is a concerted smear campaign on the part of the league aimed at undermining Fehr’s sway over the union. Not all players are in a position to hold out for a full season, and owners managed to exploit that and a poorly-organized union to get a majority of players to work behind former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow’s back in striking the union-crushing 2005 CBA.
So be careful to separate Fehr’s hardline influence from the inability of owners to deal with a union boss who, beyond simple competence, is in control of every room he walks into.
The NHLPA didn’t ruin the good traction built up in the Tuesday meetings by bringing Fehr into the fold. All the good vibes generated by the Penguins’ friendly contingent of Ron Burkle, Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux, Craig Adams and David Morehouse were positive, to be sure, but weren’t going to lay the groundwork of an agreement.
Anyone suggesting that the players could have signed off on a deal without Fehr there to supervise is out of their gourd. The players hired the Fehr’s to negotiate a deal that works in their favor. Dismissing his counsel at the first sign of a deal that signs off on the “massive concessions” (read: already criminal gains) being made by the owners would have been insane, and they were right to bring him back to the table.
If the tone and tenor of meetings turned upside-down at that exact point, it’s because owners knew they wouldn’t be able to take players for a ride after all.
We’re truly entering uncharted territory. The sides are achingly close to a deal, but the benefit of time (and a great deal of pride) are going to push that critical point back to the end of the month, if not further. The NHL has no idea how to handle someone like Fehr, as Bettman’s frazzled presser showed Thursday.
Perhaps most importantly, the true measure of brand damage has yet to be considered. Potential sponsors have probably begun to review possible NHL collaborations with a Geigger Counter. Customer outrage has been propagated by information transparency that simply didn’t exist in 2005. All this goes without mentioning the general sense that fans won’t be receiving two superstar rookies and a new-and-improved product for their patience, as was the refrain in 2004.
This is about as ugly as it gets. Until it gets uglier.