Back To A Dark Future
Don Fehr may yet win this thing. And he surely didn't take the job to lose.
What that will look like, precisely what would constitute an NHLPA victory over the NHL in this current labour spat, is unclear. How to win a give-back negotiation has always been the fundamental conundrum facing the union.
What we do know, and the latest manifestation of it was vividly demonstrated this weekend in the fussing over the details of direct talks between owners and players, is that the presence of Fehr has both galvanized the players while at the same time league-union relations have been set back at least 20 years.
Are the players more united than ever? Roman Hamrlik aside, it seems so, although with at least another six weeks of negotiating ahead before the 2012-13 season is finished for good, the mettle of both sides has yet to be tested to the max.
But if the NHLPA is united, it is united not by a common goal or an objective, but by a total and complete distrust of ownership and league executive bordering on hatred.
And in that, we're really back to where we were circa 1990 when Alan Eagleson and John Ziegler had an oh-so-cozy relationship and players were just starting to understand how they'd been had for the previous two decades.
Then, at least, the players could honestly see how Eagleson and his many hats had compromised their position on a variety of fronts including pensions, salaries, expansion, mergers, international hockey and benefits in general.
It was the last time that you could seriously make an argument that NHL players were an exploited group. Then Bob Goodenow took over and the great evening process began. By 2004, players were getting 73 cents of every dollar that went in the NHL's till.
Fast forward to 2012. NHL players have never been as rich as they are now, or were, under the previous collective bargaining agreement. During Gary Bettman's reign as NHL commissioner, their salaries have increased more than five-fold.
For that, Bettman is almost universally hated by the players.
There was a little of this back in 2004-05. We remember Chris Chelios' unkind/threatening words. But the proliferation of social media since then has given us access to the inner workings of the minds of more players, and unless they are being untruthful, to a man they appear to distrust and despise the NHL commissioner as a "cancer" and an "idiot" and generally in a way that is reminiscent of the way in which the Eagleson-Ziegler tandem was despised when it became clear what they'd been up to.
Interestingly, however, it hasn't stopped there, with a massive hate-on for Bettman.
In recent weeks, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs has become the focal point of the union's spite. Before, it was Bettman accused of restraining the majority of good-willed owners and using voting rules to keep a minority in charge. Now, Jacobs has joined the commish in the minds of the players, ostensibly as the hardest of the hard-line owners, a individual who cannot be reasoned with because of his unbridled greed and disrespect for the hockey union.
At least that's what the brethren believe. Forget the $34 million Jacobs lavished on Tyler Seguin for no particular reason just before the lockout began, about as anti-Bettman a move as an owner could make.
Don't confuse the effort to create PA unity by introducing facts.
The union line is that Jacobs hates players, and wants to take the game back to the Ziegler days. This is what the players seem to now believe, or what their propagandists are trying to convince them of.
Again, there are echoes of years past in this. Back in the Ziegler days, it was Dollar Bill Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, who was identified as the power behind the throne.
Now it's Bettman and Jacobs. We didn't really have this during the Goodenow years, at least not in the final ones after the league was forced to finally open up its books and prove what it claimed to be true was indeed true, both with Wirtz's Blackhawks and elsewhere.
For a time, that seemed to change the flavour of league-union relations. They might disagree, but it was over facts and objectives. Then the union got a little preoccupied with trying to burn its own house down.
Now, we're back to plain old "You're trying to rip us off." The "make whole" issue has been turned into players fighting back against a league effort to "tear up" existing contracts. Fear and loathing abounds, which makes it hard to make a whole lot of progress, and creates scenes like Chris Campoli screaming insults at Craig Leipold.
Give Fehr credit. In a take-back scenario, he didn't have a lot of cards to play. All he could really do was find a way to make the players believe this was about their manhood, about standing up to the owners, about making amends for turning on one another in the last lockout.
To have any cards to play in this negotiation, Fehr needed to rally the players around the concept that despite the fact salaries had increased substantially since the last lockout, the 2005 CBA was their Treaty of Versailles. This required some finesse. Fehr, rather than working on a new deal, talked from the start about the massive give-backs of that CBA, and the vital need not to capitulate again.
He needed to make this negotiation about the past, not the future.
The best way to achieve that goal was to unite the players behind a secondary idea, the idea that the owners were and are lying to them at every turn, that they won't bargain fairly, that the players are giving and giving more and more not getting anything in return, that Bettman and Jacobs and the rest of them are trying to take food off the table of today's player and the player of the future.
It doesn't have to be true to work.
The owners and Bettman seemed caught unawares this would be the strategy. Indeed, if there has been a great miscalculation in this process, it was in the first offer of the owners to the players. Instead of being seen as simply an opening move in a long negotiation, Fehr and Co. made sure it was viewed as an attack on players, as a declaration of all-out war. You could even go back before that, to the realignment proposal of last season, killed by the union basically because Fehr convinced the players they hadn't been consulted properly and the league was trying something untoward, something shifty.
These events fueled the distrust and united the players, and Jimmy Devellano's ill-timed and offensive words were just gasoline on the fire. If the players were unsure of themselves before, they weren't any more.
What this means is that even relatively simple negotiating tasks have become thorny nightmares. Trying to organize direct player-owner talks as will take place on Tuesday became a debate over which owners should be there because surely Jacobs shouldn't be.
The champion of the players has become New York Rangers boss Jim Dolan, and not because Dolan is seen to be a sharp hockey man. History tells us Dolan and Bettman don't get along, so to the players, that means Dolan must be the only sensible member of the NHL lodge, and therefore the only owner likely to see reason.
Hey, if Dolan could be included in the talks and the talks led to a resolution, it might even be an impetus to get rid of Bettman.
But Dolan won't be at the table. Instead, the NHL will send Larry Tanenbaum (Toronto), Murray Edwards (Calgary), Mark Chipman (Winnipeg), Jeff Vinik (Tampa Bay) and Ron Burkle (Pittsburgh). Oh yes, and Jacobs, and his inclusion is likely to be interpreted as a red flag to the ever wary players.
This deal will get done eventually. Perhaps not in time to save this season. Next season might also be impacted. But eventually, there will be a new CBA.
But how will the distrust created by this standoff, layered on top of unprecedented public cynicism over the entire mess, ever be reduced? Its hard to see at this point how, or when, the league and union might have a relationship based on mutual respect and common goals as was supposed to be the case after the last lockout but turned out to be a mirage.
At this point, growing the pie, which would benefit owners and players, appears to be the last objective on the minds of either side. It's scorched earth for both. This isn't about moving forward; we're back to the early 1990s in terms of the relationship between owners and players.
And isn't that the worst scenario of all? That this battle won't just be the biggest, nastiest one yet, but rather the first in a series in this new century.