The danger of the owners-players meeting this week wasn’t that the players, in a board room, were meeting on the owners’ turf. It was that some owners, unable to control old instincts, would start talking to the players like owners, and this negotiation, always about pride, would go off the rails again.
Apparently, that didn’t happen. A human face at least temporarily has been put on the other side. Before each side becomes officially evil again, they might keep some things in mind as they work through the tough stuff to get to a deal.
First, this agreement was never going to happen fast. Nothing was going to get done before the labour pact expired Sept. 15. A negotiation is about issues but it’s also about the relationship between its parties. If the issues this time didn’t seem that difficult – the 2004 negotiation about a salary cap was far more fundamental – the relationship question was going to be tricky.
History matters. In 2004, the players lost. If one was to compare those negotiations to a season, the players had gone into the Stanley Cup final against the owners as the heavy favourites. Year after year the owners had chased after free agents pushing salary levels higher for every player and every team. The owners, despite NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s exhortations and ridicule of them in NHL governors’ meetings, seemed powerless to stop themselves. The NHL Players’ Association, led by Bob Goodenow, just said no to anything the owners proposed. They knew, eventually, the owners would give in.
But this time the owners changed the NHL’s by-laws. A vote of three-quarters of the league’s governors was needed to overturn any agreement Bettman made. Bettman, stung by years of frustration, now with the power he needed, was ready.
In real life, the season was cancelled, the players broke apart and the NHLPA self-destructed. In this imaginary Cup final, the players were expected to win four straight. The series, instead, went to a seventh game. The owners blew them out, 8-0.
The players were humiliated. In recent years it’s been suggested the players didn’t lose, that the consequence of some of the new agreement’s provisions, unanticipated at the time by both the NHL and NHLPA, is that the players’ average salary increased substantially. But players, above all, are competitors. They know what a win feels like; they know what a loss feels like. They lost.
Out of one negotiation into the next, every winner needs to win more. Every loser needs to get even. Every breakdown makes the next one more likely. Reputations, for both winners and losers, get established. War stories get told and retold. For Bettman, there were the spoils of victory – a big boost in salary. For the losers, little by little reputations need to be rebuilt, self-images boosted, moments created where pride can be felt again.
So, 2004 set the table for 2012. Most of the present issues emerged out of the effects of the unanticipated consequences of 2004.
But beneath the issues, far more central to the present stalemate and far harder to resolve is the relationship. Last time, the owners won and the players lost. In Watergate, to help Woodward and Bernstein make sense of a confusing story, Deep Throat advised them to “follow the money.” The owner-player dispute this time may seems to be about the money, but it’s not. To understand it you have to “follow the pride.”
There wasn’t going to be an agreement before Sept. 15 because neither side was going to be willing to give up all that the other side needed to win before the contract expired. The money issues might be resolved. The relationship question couldn’t be.
The players had to establish some equilibrium in their relationship with the owners. If they couldn’t this time, they knew, led by someone as formidable as Donald Fehr, they would have little chance in the future.
Then games began to be cancelled. The public’s reaction has come in spasms of urgency followed by periods of calm. Some fans have expressed anger, some disinterest (though passionately), some apathy. The owner-player gamble has been that none of this will last past the lockout.
The give-and-take through November was no surprise. Both sides needed to push the issues forward – a small agreement here; the closing of a gap there – as though they were the real matters to be resolved.
Instead it’s given both sides the chance to do what they most need to do: to stand up to the other and test the resolve of the other. This can only happen over time, time running down, and time running out.