The NHL lockout hit an all-time low last night, or so it seems, when hockey fans were informed a deal was near. But just minutes later, were re-informed a deal is likely not in the “immediate future.”
After positive progress in Tuesday meetings, the two sides broke and appeared to be approaching a deal. Optimism soared through the roof when NHLPA Executive Donald Fehr took to the podium to announce a deal was very close. But just as quickly as feelings soared, they were shot out of the sky when Fehr approached the podium a second time with a chilling new development.
With announcements like, “we think we have a complete agreement on dollars” and “we are very close, if not on top of each other, on many other issues,” it seemed like a major development in the lockout. But as the TSN panel had warned just after the announcement, this was the union’s spin on the matter and that we need to wait for the league’s response.
In an unexpected turn of events, Fehr re-approached the podium to confirm “there has been a development, and it’s not a positive one.”
He said the NHL had left a voicemail with his brother Steve just after or during the original presser, saying the moves the players made in the counter offer were “unacceptable.” He concluded with a chilling statement to the fans and the media.
“I guess you can tell them that this doesn’t look like this will be resolved in the immediate future”
If this news wasn’t paralyzing enough, Gary Bettman took the podium within the hour, evidently outraged by the entire ordeal.
“I find it incomprehensible for them to come out and say that we’re close; we were never close,” said the league commissioner. “I’m not sure spinning everybody into an emotional roller coaster, saying we might be playing hockey tomorrow, is fair to the fans or the players or the process.”
He concluded by saying that everything offered during the week is now off the table.
Before hockey fans blame everything on Bettman and the owners, the league had made clear it expected a simple ‘yes or no’ response. That Thursday was not to be a day of negotiations. Bettman also said the owners were enraged Wednesday at the players’ non-gracious reception of the $98 million offered towards the Make Whole provision.
Given the players were strictly informed this was a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer, it’s surprising that the players were taken aback at the league’s reaction.
However, Bettman went a little over the top by saying it was the league that has been taking all the concessions in the process.
“We kept giving and giving and giving and the union resubmits an offer and comes to all of you and says ‘oh look at this wonderful proposal.’ It was the same thing over and over and over again, just repackaged.”
This statement is likely to outrage the players because they are the ones who are the subject of concession during all aspects of negotiations. The players are the ones taking a seven percent cut in revenue sharing, are being demanded to take contract length adjustments, among the grand list of issues which characterize this lockout.
Having said that, there is a business angle to consider, that is the league’s vantage point.
While everyone is quick to point out Bettman’s track record and his hattrick in terms of the number of lockouts he’s been at the helm for, they fail to realize that small market franchises have been saved and that league revenues have soared under his command.
The NHL before Bettman saw a league where large market teams squeezed out smaller market teams or new franchises. Bettman entered an NHL where the free market was rampant and was beginning to take its toll on the smaller market teams. Poor bargaining didn’t allow for much growth and as a result, teams like the North Stars, the Flames (Atlanta) were weaseled out.
The affects lingered even shortly after Bettman’s takeover. The original Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers followed suit in the late 90s. This was a trend Bettman has been so adamant in stopping.
Bettman’s efforts in capping salaries and restricting large markets essentially prevents teams from buying championships. This is why all the core economic issues are debated so vigorously.
What’s ironic about the league side as whole, is the fact that Bettman aims to restrict large market owners’ power and punish teams who have signed players to whopping contracts. This virtually sums up every owner in the league.
So despite the persona on Bettman versus Fehr or Bettman versus the players, in actuality, it’s Bettman versus the owners. His purpose is to protect the owners from themselves and preventing franchises from driving each other into the ground.
While it’s easy to throw Bettman under the bus, it is important to consider the meaning behind his iron fist ruling.
With the way last night unfolded, fans should consider that despite all the negativity, there are some things to note in each of the press conferences.
When Fehr said they are close in terms of dollars, they are. Even before Tuesday, sources from both sides said there’s no way a season will be lost because of such minor differences.
Just as the possibility of NHLPA decertification looms, so the possibility exists that the league is just posturing once again in order to get a message through to the players.
The owners are aware of the players’ desperation to play. They are aware there are players who wanted to sign the deal yesterday. Last night’s debacle could very well be a pressure cooker in order to have those voices rise among the union.
However, that is not to say the league isn’t genuinely angry with last night’s results. They submitted a take-it-or-leave-it offer, which was then tweaked by the union and announced the two sides were close to a deal.
Although Bettman said everything offered this week is now off the table, it isn’t a doomsday statement. These things can be put back on the table.
Last night was not a positive note for hockey fans, but there is still time. The month of December has three weeks left on the calendar and negotiations will resume.