In keeping with the season, the NHL has been staging its own holiday pantomime with league and union slavishly playing their appointed roles. Tuesday’s day-long exchange of position papers indicates the actors are likely down to the final act. With owners telling commissioner Gary Bettman they he’ll likely destroy their business by cancelling another season, there should be some semblance of a 48-game season by Jan. 20.
What makes the worn-out drama so repellent for fans is that this farce was entirely preventable from the owners’ point of view. While NHL sources blame Donald Fehr, the player’s executive director, for stalling and equivocating the past six months, it was the owners themselves who drove players into the arms of Fehr’s classic labour perspective.
Few of the players who’d had one or two previous labour stoppage were up for another costly sacrifice this time. They’d given millions at the office. There was a deal to be made that would have placated these influential veterans and allowed a season to start on time in October. One that acknowledged the right of the NHLPA to exist as a very junior partner to the league.
Instead, the league’s hawks won out in the Board of Governors. Frustrated by Fehr’s laconic approach to talks, they delivered a scorched-earth proposal to the NHLPA membership in the summer. Having conceded significant rollbacks last time, the players were being publicly asked to bail out the NHL’s failed business plan again.
Asking for massive rollbacks in what Gary Bettman had bragged was a successful business took hubris of a rare sort. And after hubris comes nemesis.
Nothing Fehr had said or done in the previous 18 months could have worked better to push players into Fehr’s hard-line approach to negotiations. From the moment Bettman proposed a drop in players’ share of revenues from 57 per cent to 46 per cent with four-year maximum contracts, players united behind Fehr. And the league had the disastrous fight it spoiled for.
Fehr has played it cool: There is one key difference between the 2004-’05 lockout and this one. In the previous lockout it was the players under the volatile Bob Goodenow who lost their cool and focus. Compared to the vanilla Fehr, Goodenow was a smouldering cauldron of resentment and paranoia. Bettman skillfully used this against the players to break the union.
This time it’s the NHL publicly losing its poise, its focus. The sight of an apoplectic commissioner Bettman vibrating like a tuning fork early after the December meltdown summed up the NHL’s pique with confronting Fehr’s rope-a-dope style. Coming after July’s give-back demands, the “hill we’ll die on” and “the offer is off the table” theatrics, the NHL’s theatrics appeared petulant and distracted after Fehr’s deliberate strategy.
It’s been instructive to watch the indignation from hockey management types when Fehr has had the temerity to negotiate the same way they do. And it’s why, in large part, this lockout will prove disastrous on a sponsor and broadcaster level. Impulsive owners are chasing a knockout of Fehr that will never come.
Outsider advantage: Fehr, meanwhile, doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss for hockey’s hothouse mindset. He’s in it for the players and to tweak the nose of sports owners who want to rule by fiat. His classic outsider’s perspective galls the NHL’s culture, which is equal measures of anger, xenophobia and bullying. He knows that, as the interloper, he infuriates the sweats and their little internal culture (that extends to the media as well).
And Fehr used this blind resentment against Bettman and blustering owners such as Jeremy Jacobs of Boston and Murray Edwards of Calgary whenever they stamped their feet and pounded the desk as they did in 2004-’05, but without the same effect. As that noted puckhead Karl Marx once wrote, history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce.
Thorny moment at the Rose Bowl: Amusing glimpse behind curtain in the moments following Tuesday’s Rose Bowl as a suit representing the Rose Bowl committee grabbed winning coach, David Shaw of Stanford, away from ESPN interviewer Heather Cox for a trophy presentation.
When the eager suit got Shaw free from Cox for the presentation, Cox let out an audible, “Are you kidding?” that got out live on air. Host Brent Musburger tried to smooth things over, explaining that there had obviously been a missed communication that denied the host broadcaster first access to the winning coach.
Why was Cox steamed? Let’s see, ESPN pays billions for NCAA football rights. The Rose Bowl trophy is worth a couple of hundred dollars and the presentation seen by a coupe of hundred people. Wonder of there’s time for ESPN to put a stop payment on that Rose Bowl cheque?