Saturday, December 8, 2012

Did Donald Fehr go too far with his latest move?

Or did he land a stunning counter punch?

Well, there's no discounting the theatrics of this past Thursday. "Gold, Jerry, gold."

The league had another "take it or leave it" offer on the table--three cornerstones, "not to be cherry-picked" according to Deputy commish Bill Daly--after two days of players/owners discussions.

And out comes NHLPA Director Donald Fehr saying that the two sides are real close, close enough to get 'er done and that they've submitted a counter offer.

The response was from the NHL was, "What?"

And so Fehr heads up to the podium again and says that, ummm, they've left a message saying that the talks are off and their taking the latest contract off of the table.

Bill Daly (l) and Gary Bettman (r)
didn't take too kindly to the events
of Thursday evening.
Daly and his boss Commish Gary Bettman take to the podium livid. They, obviously, thought they had it in the bag. That either they'd got what they wanted or could begin fashioning a public relations onslaught against a union--and it's leader--as the reason the there's still a lockout.

Maybe they haven't figured out that with Fehr, there's no deviance from the plan. He's still negotiating and until both sides can come to an agreement.

But, did he go too far?

Maybe. There's a butt-load of opinions out there suggesting that the players sign the deal so that the business of hockey can get going again. And there are a ton of reasons why this lockout should end, or should have ended already.

That Fehr is loathed by Bettman and the owners is a given. During the players/owners sessions, there seemed to be progress, but when it was mentioned that Fehr be included as the players representative to close the deal, the owners response was that the mere presence of Fehr is considered a deal-breaker.

Not surprising. Ownership consists of shrewd, powerful businessmen who are no strangers to contracts and the legalities therein. And they're lead by a New York Lawyer who's one of the best in the business.

The players play hockey. They need legal counsel.

That's why they hired Donald Fehr, who happens to be the best at what he does.

"NHL commissioner Gary Bettman came to the microphone after meeting with the NHL Players’ Association Thursday afternoon and if you looked closely enough, you could see traces of smoke coming out of his ears."

That was written by the Hockey News' Ken Campbell after the league rejected the NHLPA's tri-offer on October 18.

Everyone thought that plenty of progress had been made, optimism was high, hope reigned supreme. But doom and gloom followed the quick, 10 minute rejection by the NHL.

“It’s clear we’re not talking the same language,” said Bettman, uttering the kind of rhetoric nobody likes to hear in a dispute. “The proposal that was made today, things are not progressing. To the contrary - the proposal that was made by the players’ association was a step backward.”

BAM! That's the sound of reality come crashin' down.

At the time the issue was honoring existing contracts after a 50/50 split with a salary roll back in play. Well, the "make whole" provision appeared and after six weeks of negotiating they seemed to come together on the issue with the NHL putting $300M into the provision.

One should remember that, at the time, there was a large segment of the hockey community who felt that the players should take what they were offered, just like right now. And there was a large Fehr-bashing contingency as well.

But, why did the NHLPA hire Donald Fehr? Because this is what he does, and he does it well.

So when player executive Mathieu Schneider says “It’s just been a moving target,” in regards to how the owners are negotiating, this is something that Fehr knows.

It's understandable when Schneider says he's truly baffled, “I cannot for the life of me understand why they want to be further apart each time."

Fehr understands it. He's seen it before.

This is the example Schneider offered as to why he's baffled (related to length of the new CBA, one of the "three cornerstones" the owners arent' budging on)--"Their first offer was five years. We were at three and an option. We moved up to five years, they moved to six. In this last negotiation this past week, we moved up to six, they moved up to 10. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. The first time we heard 10 was about a week and a half ago when Murray Edwards threw it out at the end of one of the sessions. He said, ‘We’re willing to do a 10-year deal, guys, we think we should do a 10-year deal’."

Oh, Mathieu, there is a rhyme and a reason. They're trying to get the most they can out of a good hearted, well meaning Canadian like yourself. Just remember the reason you all hired Donald Fehr.

"And Don (Fehr) said, ‘You think you should do a 10-year deal because it’s a great deal for you’. (Edwards) didn’t really have any response for that.”

BAM! In your face.

And what about another "cornerstone," the "hill that the owners are willing to die on?" The five year contract limit with a 5% salary variance year-to-year?

Adam Proteau of the Hockey News answered that by saying "the league wants not simply to get a larger piece of its revenue stream, but to effectively tie down the union’s ability to control how its membership splits their 50 percent.

And he quotes an email from a player agent. Said the agent, 'The players have agreed to go to 50-50 for the last "x" number of years of the deal. Shouldn't that be all that matters? Why does the league have to "die on the hill" on an allocation of dollars issue? It's the PA’s 50 percent, the PA should dictate who gets what. Why does the league care and how does the allocation jeopardize franchises?'

As of right now the NHLPA has not addressed the "three cornerstones" directly. And is seems as if the hockey community will do it for him.

In extracting extreme emotion from Bettman and Daly, Fehr got them to express, in no uncertain terms, exactly where they stand and expose just what kind of control freaks he's dealing with.

But, of all the stupid things that Bettman and Daly said on Thursday, the "die on the hill remark" is probably the most damaging.

Sure, the owners in haste and disgust pulled everything off the table, but they're really willing to scrap everything because they want more control over the players share?


So, in fact, Fehr really didn't go to far. He did what was necessary.

That Bettman has a counterpart equal to himself in this process has left him angry and somewhat bewildered. Just look at the reaction from Thursday night.

Katie Baker of Grantland, writes an insightful piece on Bettman and just how strong he is as a negotiator.

Baker touches upon the greatness of Bettman and his negotiating, using a quote from Leafs GM Brian Burke from "The Art and Analytics of Negotiation" panel he was on:   'There's smart--and then there's Bettman smart. He's a very three steps ahead guy.

But here's why Donald Fehr is so reviled by ownership. He's getting Bettman to slip up. She culls a quote from an interview back on Nov. 19 concerning the leagues first offer (from Gary Lawless, Winnipeg Free press interview)
Free Press: Was the aggressive nature of your first offer to the players a mistake?
GB: I think the view some have of our first offer is fairly naive as it relates to collective bargaining. A sophisticated negotiator would have looked at it and said, 'Obviously they want a 50-50 split.' If we're at 57 and they propose 43, they must be telegraphing where they want to end. If your intention was to use it in an inflammatory way, you could do that. If your intention was to make a deal, you could pretty much chart out what the course should be.
She follows that up:
"His candor made me think of something else Burke had said during the Art and Analytics of Negotiation panel at the SSAC: 'My theory is, make the first meeting as short and unpleasant as possible," he said. "Sometimes it's better to just punch the guy in the face.'
Burke was hamming it up a bit for the audience then, but it's a good reminder of how much of this lockout is scripted. It's easy to read everything into a rejected offer or delivered ultimatum, but sometimes all it means is that a negotiation is going on.'
A script written by the owners (actually written by law firm Proskauer Rose for the NBA followed by the NHL) with "a pretty obvious ending, too. Before any irreparable harm, the [NBA] owners backed off their draconian demands, and the players agreed to take a smaller piece of the overall pie."

And it was a course charted by the owners  (in the words of former NHL GM, Doug Maclean) “knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out until December 1st, and then at December 1st getting a deal done.”

That was until Thursday night (December 6th, a little later than planned) when Fehr did not follow the script. And worse, by improvising beyond anything the "Bettman-smart" league prepared for, he created a melee' of emotions from the NHL.

Said Baker, "It's alarming when you start to see emotion creep into the boardroom, especially from executives who ought to know better."

That's what happens when the doozy of a counter punch by Fehr landed squarely on the chin of Bettman.

The league will need to give on the "three cornerstones" if they want a deal done. If they don't, then Fehr still has the George Forman right hook to unleash--decertification.

If that lands, all hell will break loose.

Other links:

Jonathan Willis, the Edmonton Journal, on when it makes sense not to make a deal.

Peter Adler, the Edmonton Journal, on player dissent beginning to bubble

Ed Tait, Winnipeg Free Press, on the theatrics of Thursday with quotes from some Jets players

Ray Ratto, CSNBayArea, the battle is between Fehr and Jacobs, not Fehr and Bettman
Sean Conboy, Pittsburgh Magazine, with a historical parallel from the 1959 steel strike

Jeremy Rutherford, St. Louis Post Dispatch, David Backes called the Thursday night drama, "a kick in the groin"

Jen Floyd Engel, Fox Sports, the NHL is like Lindsay Lohan--from a cute, little red head to a train wreck

Joe Haggerty, Comcast Sportsnet Northeast, on the owners disdain for Donald Fehr how close the sides are

Mike from Attleboro, CSSNE, on why fans should really hate the owners/why Fehr should (have) capitulate (d).

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