Almost nobody in the hockey world is attaching even cautious optimism to the Tuesday owners-players-only meeting, which is probably wise. That’s because there are too many aspects to this that work against it merely being an exercise in futility.
If a concept or sense of conciliation comes out of the meeting that germinates into something bigger and leads to a collective bargaining agreement that saves the season, we’ll have commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr to thank for putting their egos aside and allowing it to happen. But this whole scheme reeks of nothing more than a Hail Mary pass – a stroke of genius with huge rewards if it works, but one that results in failure on the vast majority of attempts.
Here are three reasons why your correspondent thinks the meeting is doomed:
1. The presence of Jeremy Jacobs and Murray Edwards on the ownership side.
Let’s see if we have this straight. The league extends an olive branch to the players by proposing this meeting, then insists on having its two most prominent hawks as part of the meetings? How counterproductive can you get?
As chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, Jacobs is Bettman’s most ardent ally, followed closely by Edwards. Both have been present and prominent in all the CBA discussions to this point and have been a large part of the overall NHL strategy to this point, from its laughable first offer to its propensity to turn its nose up at pretty well any proposal the NHLPA puts forward.
Jacobs wields an enormous amount of power and sway among the owners and those who know the inner workings of NHL ownership caution it’s very wise not to cross him. So, who among these guys is going to step out of line and try to be conciliatory with the players?
Edwards? Probably not, since he appears to be next in line to take over Jacobs’ spot as arguably the most powerful man in the game as chairman of the board of governors executive committee. As influential as the board is as a whole, the executive committee is Bettman’s cabinet and that’s where the real decisions are made.
Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman and Toronto Maple Leafs representative Larry Tanenbaum represent teams with the most to lose during the lockout. Tanenbaum’s team makes the most revenue in the league, so it is losing the most by locking the players out. Chipman, meanwhile, is losing an enormous amount of momentum that his team has created. But who was the chairman of the board when Chipman got his team? Jacobs. And while Tanenbaum tried to broker a deal with a small group in 2005, there’s little evidence to suggest the Maple Leafs would go against the league. After all, the Maple Leafs made back tenfold in salary savings what they lost in the last lockout.
That leaves Pittsburgh Penguins representative Ron Burkle and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. Burkle, in particular, has a long history of conciliatory dealings with unions and is seen as a consensus builder, so there is definitely some hope there. Vinik would probably have the ability to cut through the legal drudgery and get to the business of making a deal, realizing that neither side is gaining anything by losing all this revenue.
But as long as Jacobs and Murray are in the room, is there any point in anyone else being there?
2. Gary Bettman.
The one intriguing question in all of this is what would happen if this meeting actually put the two sides on the path to forging an agreement?
Is there anyone out there who believes Bettman would survive as NHL commissioner if that were to happen? As the man who has been front-and center of three lockouts, Bettman and his legacy would certainly take a severe beating if that were to happen.
Which is why, I believe, Bettman made the proposal in the first place. There is far too much risk attached to it for him if this scheme were to work. Bettman likely believes it has no hope, therefore he knows there is little to lose by making the proposal.
3. Don Fehr.
By being passive aggressive and unflinching, Fehr has managed to wrestle control over the negotiations despite not having any cards to play. Love or loathe him, Fehr has proven to be a brilliant negotiator for the players.
Before the lockout, the prevailing thought was that Fehr might not want his lasting legacy as a sports negotiator to be the man responsible for shutting down an NHL season and that he would come into these negotiations in a cameo role, collect his money and then ride off into the sunset after handing the head job at the NHLPA off to his brother Steve.
As usual, Fehr was underestimated. He is clearly in this race to win it. It’s obvious he does not give much thought to his lasting legacy, or what the fans or owners think of him. He is tying the NHL in knots with a negotiating style that is as passive-aggressive as they come and he knows he has the league frustrated. That’s how he intends to gain the upper hand in all of this.
Does anyone think Fehr would be willing to throw that all away by allowing owners to make an end-around with the players? Not a chance. More likely, he knows this is a good exercise in proving the players are doing everything they can and will give them another good reason to decertify, should that be the route they choose to go.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.