First, a little tempered pessimism on a day when unbridled optimism entered the NHL labour dispute, thanks to Tuesday’s face-to-face meeting between players and owners that left the two principal negotiators, commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, on the sidelines.
Every lockout in every sport has its negotiating peaks and valleys before an agreement is eventually reached. Usually, within the context of a steady stream of bad news, there is the occasional surge of hope that gives the process momentum for a time because it forces the two sides to look at their differences in a new context.
Unhappily, more than not, the positive vibes usually peter out without a resolution – and send both sides scurrying back to their foxholes to dig in for a longer siege.
So that’s where they stand on a Wednesday, when negotiations between the players and owners took a break, so that a regularly scheduled NHL board of governors meeting could be held. Talks will then resume upon the B of G’s conclusion, and then we’ll get a clearer picture of where they stand.
Trust, and the lack thereof, has been one of the overriding issues between the two sides ever since the process started. That’s why the decision to insert three owners who the players apparently do trust – the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ron Burkle, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Jeff Vinik and the Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Chipman – was both intelligent and long overdue.
Think of it this way. Last summer, Burkle and his partner Mario Lemieux signed Sidney Crosby to a 12-year, $104.4-million contract extension, a significant leap of faith by the hockey club considering that Crosby is coming off two seasons marred by concussions.
NHL contracts are guaranteed so that means Crosby will get his money, no matter what happens with his health.
When a team makes that sort of a financial commitment to a player, then they effectively become business partners.
Crosby may not have an official ownership position with the Penguins, but he is a de facto shareholder in the enterprise. Nowadays, players with that sort of stature and financial clout are usually involved in any major discussions about the organization’s future, including who to sign as a free agent. They are often asked to help recruit talent on behalf of the organization; and they always become part of the organization’s marketing team. In short, they understand that the player and team are in it together, with the unified goal of helping the team win and make money.
It is why NHL players who’ve had a field day badmouthing Bettman have mostly steered clear from badmouthing the owners that sign their individual paycheques. They know they have a working relationship with them, one that eventually will resume once the lockout ends.
Usually, in business, there is a need to trust your partners. If you can’t, then the business has problems.
Crosby and Burkle appear to have no such issues. Instead, they reportedly flew together to the New York meetings and along with Lemieux and agent Pat Brisson discussed ways and means of getting the game back playing again. Maybe these talks focused only on broad philosophical lines that will ultimately need to be turned into something more tangible by the lawyers and accountants. That’s okay. That should be their function in this process anyway – to provide the fine print, when the larger issue of how to divide the spoils of a $3.3-billion business are determined by the people with a financial stake in the industry.
The frustrating, maddening, mind-boggling part about Tuesday’s positive step is that it took the two sides nearly three months to get to that point. What a waste – and all because the principals at the bargaining table were too wrapped up in the dance of the negotiations that they didn’t spend enough time pondering the art of the deal.
Here’s a suggestion for both sides to chew on as they reach another critical moment in the dispute:
Making concessions to arrive at an equitable agreement should be seen as a necessary step in the negotiating process, not as a sign of weakness or wavering resolve.
Until they digest and absorb that basic lesson, nothing’s really going to change.