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NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr, center, is joined by hockey players, from left, Manny Malhotra, Dan Winnik, Henrik Lundqvist and Brandon Dubinsky as he speaks to reporters after a negotiation session between the NHLPA and the NHL, Wednesday, July 18, 2012, in New York. (Jason DeCrow/AP)
NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr, center, is joined by hockey players, from left, Manny Malhotra, Dan Winnik, Henrik Lundqvist and Brandon Dubinsky as he speaks to reporters after a negotiation session between the NHLPA and the NHL, Wednesday, July 18, 2012, in New York. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

Fear of Fehr has NHL scrambling Add to ...

So a day after commissioner Gary Bettman says he didn’t want to negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement in public, the NHL releases the full text of its new 1,400-word offer to the players on its website and helpfully adds a 2,700-word explanation of its content and complexities for all to digest.

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Did the league do this: a) to shift the tide in the public relations battle?; b) to put pressure on the players’ association to start negotiating off the NHL’s CBA model?; or c) to get the unfiltered information out to the union rank-and-file, because there is still lingering mistrust over the motives and operating strategies of Donald Fehr, the NHLPA executive director?

In all probability, the answer is d) all of the above.

Let’s start with the fundamental disconnect in this whole process: the NHL’s continuing suspicion of Fehr, who frankly has them both irritated and flummoxed. Internally, they aren’t sure if he’s trying to facilitate a new agreement or win a negotiating war. They are two completely separate goals - and we’ll see how willing the NHLPA is to compromise when the two sides get back to the bargaining table Thursday.

My hunch? Not all that much. And if the goal is simply to win the negotiation at all costs because the perception - laughably - is that the players lost the last two, then Fehr will be like a poker player, in the early stages of an all-night game, ready to dig in for the long haul.

The poker analogy is apt because in the last two negotiations, for all their differences, Bettman and former NHLPA head Bob Goodenow had sat across from each other at the bargaining table before. They knew each other’s moves; and they thought they knew each other’s tells.

Fehr is a new player in the game, and they are still trying to figure him out - thus far, without much success.

Presumably, that fear of Fehr is the primary reason the league to put its offer out there - in the hopes that members of the players union will read it, consider it, try to understand it and then internally start asking questions about some of its more complex elements.

The material is dense and complicated and the numbers are all predicated on an unknown variable - what revenues may look like down the road. Specifically, can the industry growth of the past seven seasons be sustainable in the years ahead?

But here’s the risk from the NHL side. If the players see it is a divide-and-conquer strategy, then it could easily blow up in the league’s face.

Soon after Bettman unveiled his offer Tuesday to generally hopeful reactions, I suggested there were more reasons for pessimism than optimism. Few wanted to hear that.

Then Fehr circulated a letter to the players, outlining his objections to the proposal - a document made public by TSN’s Bob McKenzie - and suddenly, more people have leapt to this side of the debate, joining the nattering nabobs of negativity as Spiro Agnew once memorably said.

So here’s one positive thought to salve the hurt.

If the cooler, logical moderates on either side can hold sway, conceivably a deal can get done here in the next 10 days or so that would salvage an 82-game regular season.

In the past, whenever the negotiations go this public, it is never usually a good sign.

Real progress tends to occur when the two sides quietly slip away and start a meaningful dialogue, away from the microphones and television cameras.

Maybe that can’t even happen anymore; and that in this new information age, all the talks will be filtered through Twitter. Sadly, if every concession has to be defended in a public forum, then half the energy will be expended on spin - instead of devoting all their energies to seeking a full-time solution.

There are a lot of ways to get distracted by this discussion.

What it should boil down to is simply this: The industry can still emerge relatively unscathed here, but the negotiating window is closing fast. If this is all about battling for a cause, then there is no hope. Games will get chopped, revenues will drop, and then the one thing you won’t have to worry about is who wins the negotiation. Both sides lose.

Something to keep in mind as the clock continues to tick away.

 

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