Home > Business, Hockey, Sports, Weekend Feature > Bettman, Fehr, players and media all losers as NHL lockout comes to an end

Bettman, Fehr, players and media all losers as NHL lockout comes to an end

Gary Bettman Donald Fehr joint announcement end NHL Lockout CBA

With a farcical buddy-buddy joint announcement from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHPLA Executive Director Donald Fehr, the National Hockey League’s third lockout in 18 years has come to an end.

After months of sabre-rattling, media-baiting and gamesmanship, the NHL Players Association and the NHL have come to an agreement that saves the 2012-2013 season, but leaves the reputation of the sport in shambles. They avoided cancelling the season, but millions of dollars in revenue have been lost, and legions of fans have turned their backs on – or completely forgotten – NHL hockey.

Where the 2004-2005 lockout was sold to fans as a necessary push to establish cost certainty and league viability through a salary cap, this lockout had no singular identifiable issue for fans to understand and accept.

No issue except money, that is. The owners wanted to make more, and the players were going to have to surrender more for that to happen.

When billionaires fight with millionaires over money, it becomes extremely tough to explain it to the blue-collar paying customers.

With the NBA and NFL having established 50-50 revenue splits in their respective collective bargaining agreements one year previous, it seemed a fait accompli that the players would be surrendering their 57% share. The NHLPA’s Fehr went in from a concessionary position, so it became a game of delay tactics and dirty negotiating – a game he played very well.

Fehr proved himself to be a pro at playing head games to infuriate his league counterpart Gary Bettman into submission. He routinely showed up late to meetings. He wrote proposals on napkins and delivered them off the cuff. He repeatedly told the media “we’re close” only to have Bettman’s people refute it a few minutes later.

Fehr, a former titan of Major League Baseball union negotiations, was brought in for exactly this purpose. The NHLPA was left reeling after the 2004-2005 lockout, as then-leader Bob Goodenow was axed shortly after being circumvented by his membership to solve that lockout. Replacement Ted Saskin lasted only two years before getting gassed for hacking players’ private emails. Paul Kelly took over in 2007, but was overthrown in 2009 by various player and union advisors pressuring him out.

The players knew they’d need a strong hand for these negotiations, so they got the strongest one they could find. Fehr was their hired gun, and he did exactly what he was expected to: he battled the owners for every inch they took. Now he’ll ride off into the sunset, a one-and-done executive director who may well leave the union in the hands of his younger brother Steve.

Steve Fehr's ugly sweater NHL Lockout CBA


Steve Fehr uses Ugly Sweater negotiation tactics.

Donald Fehr’s tactics were maddening, but he seemed to keep his calm throughout the negotiations.

Not so for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman was often seen visibly upset and frustrated these past months, as Fehr’s tactics continued to drive him to the edge. Bettman repeatedly put time limits on his offers, threatened to take things off the table, and made grand pronouncements. One of the more famous declarations of this lockout came from his lieutenant, Bill Daly, who declared that 5-year contract limits were “the hill we will die on.”

Well, the new deal allows for 8-year terms.

This 10-year deal may well be the last one negotiated under Gary Bettman. Bettman has never been popular (he gets booed at every Stanley Cup presentation) but whatever scorn the NHL players used to have for him has turned to outright hatred with this lockout.

Bettman poisoned the waters for these negotiations right away when he lowballed the players with an offered cut of just 43% of revenue. The offer only insulted and galvanized the players into a resolute union, making Bettman’s task all the more difficult going forward. The league got its way in the last lockout by letting the players destroy themselves; this time, they foolishly gave the players a reason to band together.

Bettman’s written his legacy through these lockouts, and he’s become a symbol for the labour strife that dogs the league. The league’s owners would do well to turn the page on Bettman and appoint a new face to the position.

Bettman and Fehr weren’t the only parties who looked silly in this lockout.

There’s no doubt it was often painful to watch the league and its players scrapping over money these past hundred-something days, but at times it was worse to pay attention to the media outlets covering them. The Canadian media – itself built around broadcasting hockey above all other sports – turned into a gaggle of devotees chasing the negotiations around, begging for scraps of information.

Nightly television hits said the same things for months. “Talks have broken down.” “Sources suggests there is reason for optimism.” “There are no talks scheduled.” “There were only small group meetings on non-core issues.” “They continue to debate hockey-related revenue.” Etcetera. Etcetera.

The Canadian media machine – primarily TSN and Rogers Sportsnet – had hordes of reporters at the NHL’s New York offices every time a development was possible. Reporters sat outside the various negotiation sites in New York for months on end, waiting for a quote, a tidbit, or a puff of white smoke out the chimney to announce a new deal. They were there on New Years Eve in Times Square, shoulder to shoulder with revelers, their eyes on the office building in front of them, not the 2013 ball high overhead. They fought the cold by huddling in an ATM booth to keep warm, all in anticipation of an announcement – any kind of announcement – from the principal parties.

The league and the PA twice held negotiations in a ‘secret location,’ which meant farcical TV spots of reporters wandering the streets of New York, practically peering through windows in search of Bettman and Fehr.

Sports reporters did their very best to explain matters completely outside their realm of expertise. New terms like “make whole,” “decertification” and “disclaimer of interest” became the talking points for guys used to breaking down a power play and explaining a left wing lock.

The lockout also meant nothing but bad news for players’ reputations. Idle hands, millions of dollars and Twitter don’t mix well. Just ask Ian White, Kris Versteeg or Evander Kane.

Evander Kane Winnipeg Jets Twitter money Holyfield picture

Evander Kane, enduring the NHL lockout as best he can.

This was not an ideological lockout. It was a cock fight. The players had to hang in for a full three rounds without being broken by the league, and the league was determined to ease the burden on its flawed financial model by taking what it could from the PA.

10 years from now, we may well be right back here again. If history has shown anything, it’s that the owners’ greatest enemies are themselves. They were signing players to ridiculous 13-year deals mere weeks before the lockout happened, only to turn around and demand 5-year contract lengths.

The owners will always look for ways to knife each other by going around the rules, and player agents will always find ways to offer that knife. Agents will be examining this deal for loopholes right away. Last time they came up with long-term, back-diving contracts to get around inflated cap hits. That’s been closed this time, but they’ll find something else.

The lockout is over. The damage is done. a $3 billion business will be much less in the coming years, as much of the headway the league has made in the United States is undone.

For a lockout that was all about splitting up money, there will be much less of it to share because of this childishness.

Electronic Arts NHL 13 Gary Bettman Lockout

I was getting used to only seeing hockey on the PS3.

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