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.
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.