For Fehr, it’s also been a chance to build up the pride of the players. He invited some of them into the negotiating sessions – to see him in action; to see Bettman and the owners in action. When Fehr put together two counterproposals, he involved the players.
When Bettman and the owners quickly rejected both, the players took it personally. They felt rejected, disrespected. Angry. Resentful. Proud. When veteran player Roman Hamrlik questioned the continuing lockout, his comments, instead of weakening the players, brought them closer.
For the players to win as many of the money issues as they need to win, Fehr knows, first he has to make this about pride.
Through this, Bettman and Fehr have known the last possible date for there to be enough of a season to be a season, and that date is later than it seems. The 2004-05 season wasn’t finally cancelled until Feb. 16, 2005. Until that moment, there remained hope and scenarios by which a season could be played. The 1994-95 season – 48 games – didn’t begin until Jan. 20, 1995 (and didn’t end until May 3; the playoffs finishing June 24). Once they missed the scheduled start of the season and a few artificial deadlines (the date to play a full schedule of games; the Winter Classic), once they had accepted the consequences – not good or bad – of the fans’ ultimate reaction, Bettman and Fehr knew there was only one date that matters, a final date – around mid-January, 2013.
There is time. But there’s no time for mistake.
In its initial offer to the players, the owners proposed that their respective share of league revenues be reversed, that the players get 43 per cent not 57, and the owners 57 not 43. The owners overreached – to show they were tough; to show they were winners – and stirred the players’ pride.
Now as time runs short, in any offer the players propose they can’t make the same mistake. They can’t raise the owners’ pride.
It’s hard to believe that Bettman doesn’t see the damage being done.
It’s hard to believe that Fehr doesn’t see that standing up and fighting back, that pride without an agreement, won’t hold for long.
It’s hard to believe that both the owners and players are so tied up in the rightness of their own side and the wrongness of the other guys that they can’t see the earth they’re both scorching. It’s hard to believe that both Bettman and Fehr, the owners and players, can’t see that no season, no victory.
If up until now the back and forth between them is just a scenario that both Bettman and Fehr have had to play out, if both of them have things truly in hand for a signed agreement at the right moment and there is a season, sorry for all this fuss. Or as Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live would say, “Never mind.”
But if this isn’t just a scenario, if they think the issues that divide them are worthy of another cancelled year, if the season is truly at risk – they’re wrong. The owners may own the teams. They may have the right to put on games or not. The players may have the right to play or not.
But neither of them has the right to mess up what other players and other owners have created, what players and fans of all sorts, everywhere, have created over so many years.
With the fans, what is lost is lost. And for the owners and players what is lost with the fans may prove far more than whatever else is won.
But this is now, what they do next is what matters. As things stand, the owners can still achieve an increased share of league revenues, the players a lesser decreased share. Both have stood up to the other; both have shown resolve. Both have been (mostly) respectful of the other. Neither has (often) said anything too stupid. In their terms and between themselves, both can still win.
And both – the owners and players; and all of us – can still win two bigger, more important prizes: a deal of the sort that makes a next lockout less likely. And, a season.
The owners and players, after being on opposite sides all these months, on this most important point at this most important time, are finally on the same side. They are in this together.
There will be a season because there can’t not be a season.