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Harry Sinden, capitulation and who blinks next in the CBA dispute?

First, some recent VLM posts that have to do with actual hockey (on the ice) topics…


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?


  1. MIchael,

    I really don't care who caves, capitulates, or bends over to make a deal happen. I fear that if they are dumb enough to throw away another season the game will never recover. Remember, there are no sweeping rule changes to look forward to this time. Just more of the same, so to speak. I think that because the game was markedly different when they returned to play, and in my opinion much better, people were able to move on. I don't see that happening this time. If they throw away another season hockey will survive, but just barely. So who wins, everyone but the fans.

  2. I may be feeling a bit overly optimistic here, but with the owners proposal this week and the players presenting a few counters, I think the sides have broken through what was once described variously as "not on the same page" or "speaking different languages". Prior to this, it wasn't just a matter of the two sides being far apart on what they want, it was that they could not even agree on what issues needed to be negotiated on this new agreement.

    I think they are now speaking the same language, they are throwing ideas and proposals at each other on common issues at least. This is a definite step in the right direction. They may still be miles apart, but they can now begin the process of give and take and compromise. So in a roundabout way to answer your question, I don't think it's a question at this point of who presents a proposal next. They have a framework to work within now. The 50/50 split was what they both saw happening and they know it, whether they can admit to that or not. They have to continue to sit down together and negotiate and figure out what else each side is willing to give up.

    My optimism aside, I do think that Fehr will try to sit this out a little longer to force the NHL's hand, as he knows they want to squeeze a full 82 games worth of revenue into the time that is left. That's the frustrating part for me. I understand the players' stance, that despite this "wonderful" new offer, it really amounts to the owners take, take, and take, with nothing given. I do believe, however, if the two sides locked themselves in a room this weekend, they would come out with an agreement.

  3. Neither the players nor the owners are working towards the best interests of the game no matter how they spin it. Their actions (proposals) are political in nature, meant to convince the gullible public that their side is in the right. I am sick of Donald Fehr and the poor put upon millionaire players. I am sick of Gary Bettman and the fiscally irresponsible ownership group.

    It doesn't matter who makes the first move if the prime motivation is a public relations coup but I think the owners shot their bolt with their 50-50 proposal and will be content to sit back and wait for the players to come to them. It looks like it may be a long hocket-less winter.

  4. That's a very good point, Jim, about the difference between last time and this time in terms of rule changes, opening up the game,, less emphasis on the trap, etc. after the last lockout. Fans had the so-called "new" NHL to look forward to after the last lockout.

    Now, we just see even more revenues, more money, richer players and grumpy people all around. If they're that miserable, maybe we fans are chasing the wrong bus. Thanks Jim.

  5. I think that is the hope, Pete, that if they are still miles apart, at least they are both in the same stadium now.

    I agree with your last point as well, Pete, about real negotiations. As I've tried to express here before, why not some real marathon sessions? "We'll give you this if you give us that..." and keep trying to make a bit of ground. Then by all means take time off, re-group, and try to negotiate again.

    Well said, thanks Pete.

  6. I guess, PeteCam, we are all wondering if the owners' proposal was authentic, or indeed was just a well-orchestrated public relations attempt to put this mess on the players, using the easy-for-the-public-to-agree-with 50/50 share offer as the perceived "high road".

    If, as you suggest, that was their big move, I'd be shocked if they went back (yet again) and made the next move. The players already know the owners have come off their earlier positions, and naturally assume the owners have more to give.

    We'll see in the days ahead....

  7. Hi Michael:
    Let's be real, we all care about us,the Fans, rather than supporting either the greedy owners or players.
    Who should hit the button first.
    1. The Fans - Fault 25%. They should but may be too late and won't.
    2. The Owners - Fault 35%. Owners seem to have woke up and don't want to.
    3. The Players - Fault 35%. The players need to wake up to what a good deal they have.
    4. Obama - Fault 5%.

    1. The Fans
    Reading your blog for a few months, it is apparent they are not getting this, especially in my old hometown (Toronto). As we age, I seem to constantly be saying "I don't understand". Despite the obvious greed of players and owners, fans continue to allow themselves to be gouged in every direction. It is time that fans stood up and actually did something to show their displeasure (cancel seasons tickets, stop buying merchandise, boycott sponsors, whatever).
    I noticed the Yankees trying to disguise the lack of a full house for playoff games and enjoyed the displease of fans toward A-Rod on the bench at $27 million per year (and for next five years). The Yankees used to fill a 70,000 stadium but went to the big ticket corporate, box seat customer and now can't get out 46,000. Maybe fans are learning.

    2. The Owners
    However, I believe that the owners are just waking up. I have written enough corporate business plans to know that the business model being used by the NHL would never happen in the business world. You would not give employees 50% of gross revenue (whatever HRR is)period. Employees get profit sharing, stock options (look at millionaires at Microsoft, Google, etc.). The teams own the logos, why would players share in merchandise? Why should owners subsidize agents cuts? Many costs are up? There seems to be this feeling that revenues are going to go up indefinitely. I am not so sure. Much of NHL revenue is inflated by Canadian $ (30%), no one seems to know how to get the economy rolling (maybe we have new normal). Unless they can increase TV revenue (NBC are probably ticked)growht may be limited. Surely, they may have reached plateau of what gate receipts will pay.
    Wouldn't it be nice if this could be used as an excuse to get to 24 teams?
    You could make a case that it is time to place a line in the sand. Since they operate with a what the 'traffic will bear' mentality, we should not expect the fan to benefit.
    3. The Players
    Donald Fehr was hired by the players to go to war, and this is what they will get. This is not the NFL or MLB, or even the NBA. Outside of Canada and somewhat in Northern States, the NHL does not have a strong knowledgable hockey base.
    Again using business experience, I do not know any commercial or even government workers, that has both a union and player agents. If you remember, in previous posts I suggested a plan where half of pay came from team and individual incentives. Fehr indicates that the lockout has cost them $180 million so far. Well guess what, 10% of $1.8 billion is $180 Million for agents (and these people do not collude?). It is 50 years since my good friend lost his opportunity to play in the NHL by the Montreal Canadiens refusal to trade him - players are in a very different position now.
    Players feel they should be paid like entertainers. In reality, they would not like this, as it is a star-based system. The small role players are playing for the dream, not the money. I have no problem paying the big salaries to the players who lift the fan off the seat, but the 3rd and 4th liners are not worth $3million per year.
    Note: Players should not give back dollars on contracts already signed. If owners were willing to agree to dumb long term contracts, that is their problem.

    Lockout could be a long one, if something doesn't give. Wow, I feel better now, eh?

  8. You've covered important ground in your post today, RLMcC. (Love the Obama reference- we always need to blame the current administration, in any country, for all of our problems!)

    On point 1, I too am shocked that we fans take it, not only from the owners but the players. I guess folks still put these guys on a pedestal, but they are just self-serving mercenaries, just like the owners. The more they see that we "need" them more than they need us, we fans are in trouble and can be shuffled around like dust.

    On point 2, it is insane that owners give away 50%. As much as I admire the talent of the top 20% or so of NHL'ers, players are replaceable. They just are. Finding good owners is next to impossible. It is proven by the number of lousy owners, and also by the fact that even some "good" NHL owners leave after a while, frustrated that they can't make a go of it in a league that virtually no one cares about in the United States. It is not, as you say, baseball, football or basketball. Never will be- not even close.

    3) Fehr "never loses". That's his reputation. Well, this, again, is not baseball. You can't kill "America's past-time" and while you can't kill hockey interest in Canada, they're doing their collective best to do just that in the United States.

    24 teams. Fewer lousy/dumb owners./ Fewer mediocre players. Fewer agents. Less insane salaries. That would be a start.

    Players are so entitled now it's not even funny. (Based on my professional work alone, there are so many stories I could share but I choose not to.) Listen to the asinine comments from players on Twitter. These guys truly are convinced they are "sacrificing". I'm baffled. Yet fans don't seem to care.

    Pat Quinn said years ago that we were facing hockey Armageddon. He was fined heavily - apparently for being a prophet.

    Tremendous post. Thanks RLMcC.