Like watching a Presidential debate, it would have been easy to listen to Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr earlier this week (after the owners unceremoniously rejected the “latest” NHLPA CBA "counter-proposal") and wonder who was the most disingenuous of the two? Their false indignation at each other’s intransigence conjured certain images for hockey fans—none of them flattering.
Suffice to say both were at their best in terms of mock outrage and their willingness to play to the crowd - media and fans alike. They are both long-time actors of the highest order—the commissioner with that smug look, the union boss taking his glasses off at just the right moment to emphasize why we should see things as the players want us to.
With that as the backdrop, my question today is short and sweet: as it now appears the two sides have indeed gone somewhat backwards, or at least sideways—and the level of trust is at a historical low between the two parties—who will now blink first? Who will be the first to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, we were just kidding when we said you were being a phony the other day and that your offer was unacceptable. What we meant is that there is some common ground to build from. Do you want to chat?...”.
Will it be the owners who take that step - or the PA? I ask because at this point, it looks like the players believe that the owners have backed well off the league’s earlier negotiating position, as well as earlier claims that offers would only “get worse” as the lockout dragged on. Further, the players think the owners are liars and have no credibility (maybe because the owners keep changing the direction of the bouncing ball...). For their part, the owners know that, historically, they can’t get out of each other’s way after constantly crying poor and thus they have almost zero public sympathy on the heels of their “contract certainty” demand of seven years ago. But they nonetheless want to control the business and get more of the profit pie. They see the players doing better and better, and want to get back on what they see as more equal footing, considering they take the business risk.
The owners tried a major public relations move this past week with their big splash around a 50-50 split, which they claim is a compromise. The players then tried to counter the owners seemingly grabbing the perceived high ground by offering several different alternatives in response. Now, the “spin” from both sides is out of control. Some “experts” think this is all a prelude to an eventual agreement. I don’t think so. I sense we are going to miss another full season. The distrust is so deep, and so personal. But I could well be wrong.
But back to my question: who blinks first?
I’m not asking who will ultimately win or lose this battle, or for a break down of who you believe will ultimately "give in" on particular issues, just your sense of who will make the next move. Because, if it’s the owners who make the next move again, the players will be one hundred per cent convinced the owners are all talk - and will eventually cave to save the season.
Many of you will remember Harry Sinden, the long-time GM and President of the Boston Bruins (also the coach for Team Canada ’72 decades ago), exclaiming in the midst of an earlier dispute (2004-’05, or was it the deal before that?) for all the world to hear, that, “we will not capitulate” to the players. Many observers felt the owners caved in the dispute that cost the NHL a half season in 1994-’95. Similarly most saw the players as “losing” in 2004-’05.
The absolute need on both sides to not be seen as weak, as “losing” the fight, is still so important to the owners and the NHLPA. Trust. Ego. Credibility. Integrity. Everyone talks about those things, but no one seems to see it in the other side in this negotiation.
Someone has to pick up the phone, or hit the send button first. Who will it be?