National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman is currently one of the most hated men in hockey. He was the scapegoat for the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and rightfully so, as his leadership on the league side led to the cancellation of the entire season. In addition, it’s probably true that Bettman, the NHL, and the owners of the league’s 30 teams played a bigger role in causing this year’s lockout than the National Hockey League Player’s Association did (the players were willing to play without an agreement and work out the details of a new CBA later, but the NHL rejected that idea). Even so, as the lockout drags into day 83, NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr is quickly rising to the top of the “most hated men in hockey” list to challenge Bettman for the top spot.
Now that we’re deep into the lockout (regardless of how it started), fans just want to see it come to an end without the season being cancelled. Both the NHL and the NHLPA have taken turns being unreasonable and immature, but at this point, it’s Fehr who is putting the season in serious jeopardy.
A group of NHLPA players met directly with a group of NHL owners on Tuesday without the presence of Fehr or Bettman. For once, things went well. Both sides made concessions, and there was true optimism for perhaps the first time since the lockout began. However, the players asked that Fehr join Wednesday’s negotiations, and as soon as Fehr came back into the picture, things took a turn for the worse. In fact, an anonymous NHL player was quoted as saying last night (via Adrian Dater, a Colorado Avalanche beat writer): “We were ready to play again. But Don came in and told us we could get more and to hold out.”
The problem at this point is Fehr. Was he always the problem? No. Will he be a problem next time the two sides sit down to negotiate? Maybe not. But right now, he is the reason there is not an agreement. Fehr is a hired gun with one goal and one goal only: to “beat” the NHL. The NHLPA felt like they “lost” the labor dispute in 04-05, so they brought Fehr on board to ensure they would “win” this time around. We can all admit that there are no “winners” here. Both sides are losing massive amounts of money every day. Nobody is benefitting. The players are suffering, the owners are suffering, and the fans are suffering. This isn’t about winning or losing…it should be about compromising, which Fehr seems totally unwilling to do. He has no vested interests in the sport of hockey, its popularity, or its long-term success. All he cares about is winning this dispute, and that’s really hurting the situation.
The egos, stubbornness, and unwillingness to compromise of a select few (Fehr, Bettman, and NHL Deputy Commissioner Daly, among others) are causing this to drag on, but right now it’s Fehr who is the biggest problem out of everyone involved. Fehr pulled a ridiculous move yesterday by calling a press conference to announce how close the two sides were when he likely knew that the NHLPA’s offer to the NHL was going to be swiftly rejected. Fehr held the press conference anyway to make the NHL look like the “bad guys” when the offer was turned down. This only infuriated the NHL even more than the players’ weak offer did.
Fehr is trying to drag this out as long as possible in order to force the NHL’s hand into giving the players a better deal. Is that what he was hired to do? Yes, but it’s gone too far. There’s no time for stupid games and PR tactics anymore. Fehr is walking on a thin line, and he is very close to crossing from, “Let’s get the players the best possible deal,” to “Whoops, I overplayed my hand and now there is no season.”
The owners were ready to end this lockout on Tuesday and Fehr ruined it. Larry Tanenbaum, an owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs who sat in on this week’s negotiations, said: “The sessions on Tuesday felt cooperative with an air of goodwill. I was optimistic and conveyed my optimism to the Board of Governors at our Wednesday meeting. However, when we reconvened with the players on Wednesday afternoon, it was like someone had thrown a switch. The atmosphere had completely changed. Nevertheless, the owners tried to push forward and made a number of concessions and proposals, which were not well-received. I question whether the union is interested in making an agreement. I am very disappointed and disillusioned. Had I not experienced this process myself, I might not have believed it.”
Is that a bunch of PR gibberish to support the NHL? Of course, but there’s also plenty of truth to it. It’s no coincidence that things went awry on Wednesday when Fehr came back to the negotiating table. There quotes from both sides indicating that the NHL and NHLPA were ready to strike a deal on Tuesday before Fehr threw a wrench into things. The lockout was so close to ending, and now, things don’t look good.
Fehr thinks he’s pressuring the NHL into making further concessions, but all he is really doing is causing a rift among the NHLPA’s players and putting the season in serious danger of being cancelled. If the owners don’t crack as Fehr believes they will, this season is toast, all because neither side has the courage to swallow their pride and abandon their goal of “winning” the lockout.
With that being said, it’s not time to give up hope quite yet. The NHL’s assertion yesterday that “everything is off the table” is childish and yet another example of a silly PR move in a string of endless silly PR moves we’ve seen since the lockout began. Once everyone calms down from yesterday’s fiasco and cooler heads prevail, it is safe to assume the two sides will sit down to meet again and try to pick up from where they left off on Tuesday. Remember, the 1994-95 NHL lockout did not end until Jan. 11, 1995, and there was still time to play a shortened season.