Don Fehr is a legendary sports labor chief and the ongoing NHL-NHLPA negotiations are his first in hockey. (Getty Images)
A couple weeks ago, it appeared the NHL and NHL Players’ Association were ready to get serious and end this preposterous lockout. But after this week’s shenanigans, it is clear we’re in for more brinkmanship and baseless rhetoric for a good stretch to come.
You know we’re still locked in the throes of lawyerly tactics when, after the league rejects the union’s latest collective bargaining agreement offer Wednesday afternoon, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman comes out and says he and the owners who give him his marching orders aren’t interested in negotiating publicly or in spinning the truth.
That’s right. Just 37 days after news came the NHL was working with notorious political propagandist Frank Luntz – and about the same amount of time after owners posted their CBA contract offer on NHL.com – Bettman wants people to believe his side is aching to get a deal done. The man either believes fans have the attention span of a goldfish, or he’s still enveloped in his own impenetrable bubble of strategy and subterfuge.
Meanwhile, despite rumblings that the NHLPA’s current offer was their last, best bid, all you have to do to know that isn’t true is look at its details – specifically, the line that reads “In years two through five of this agreement, the players’ share in dollars may not be less than it was in the previous year.” In other words, the union is asking for a guaranteed amount of money regardless of whether the damage done by this labor war severely depletes the all-important Hockey Related Revenues. There’s a better chance of seeing Bob Goodenow make a Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech while riding piggyback on Jeremy Jacobs’ shoulders than owners agreeing to such a clause. But that’s another indication players are prepared to negotiate beyond the offer they made.
I was hopeful of a relatively fast-ish settlement, but days like yesterday bring me back to the notion I’ve leaned toward all along: that, absent utter capitulation by the PA or a significant softening of owners’ hardline stance, we’ve always been headed toward the crumbly edge of the cliff and the frightening precipice of a second fully cancelled season to have both sides show their best cards. Fear is a powerful motivator in these matters, but you can’t assemble fear like it was a piece of furniture from IKEA. Both sides undoubtedly have their own rubicons that can’t be crossed and their final drop-dead dates circled on a calendar, but it makes no sense for either to reveal that information right now.
Therefore, those still interested in this awful kabuki theatre would be well advised to settle in and stock up on Pepto-Bismol and barf bags until a deal is reached. Yes, there’s a chance negotiations pick up in the next few days and a settlement leads to the league’s return in mid-to-late December, but I’m no longer expecting anything other than additional standoffs and more public ploys, at least through the end of November and early next month. When both sides have had eight years to fortify their armor and plan their attack, it’s highly unlikely either will surrender until there’s no more room in which to pose and pretend.
This NHL lockout has turned into a real-life, extended-and-exhausting battle best symbolized by Family Guy’s recurring Peter-fights-a-giant-chicken joke. And, although it’s frustrating beyond belief for hockey fans to hear, it will be a while yet before we see the foulness end and the chickens return to their rightful roost.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com.
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