NEW YORK — The ebbs and flows of collective bargaining. Watching owners and players migrate from room to room, floor to floor. Gripping stuff! And like a car crash, you intend never to try and sneak a peek, but alas, you do.
That was Day 2 of the lengthy negotiations between players and owners. The Group of Six plus Bill Daly against 17 young, strong NHL stars and Steve Fehr. The day started with great hope, and ended … wait a minute, did it end, just yet?
As Wednesday wore on, details began to leak out that a 10- year agreement was important to the owners, and that the contracting issues of term and variance were vital. The owners wanted both and the players pushed back, hoping to settle for one. But by early evening as the sides broke to break bread, the information flow slowed down to a trickle. We had been warned time and time again that the leaks to the media will dissipate as we get closer to a deal, but I never imagined it would occur right in front of our eyes or at least when we could see the elevator doors open.
And while we weren’t in the room, you have to wonder what the principles are thinking and how they are really involved. By 5 p.m., the owners had made three separate trips up nine floors to discuss with Gary Bettman what the players had offered and explained. Was the commissioner the final sounding board? Was he a resource for the group, a sober second thought? It remains to be seen. If this process is successful will he be credited with sacrificing himself to remove the NHLPA’s key guy for the sake of the game?
And the other side — was Don Fehr’s role now diminished? Were the owners’ early stories about Fehr not telling the truth or giving the players the complete information accurate or just a smoke screen by the league, who had difficulty reading the poker face of Marvin Miller’s protege? When Wednesday morning arrived, you had to know that the positive vibe would be tainted even just a little bit by the NHLPA. Momentum had shifted to the owners’ side, and there was no way Fehr was going to allow his players to fall for any Group of Six trap.
Meeting, caucus, meeting, caucus … or was that caucus, meeting. At one point, one person on the inside described it as “root canal.” And as word of the intensity and negativity of the meetings grew, you wondered if the spirit of Don Fehr had once again gripped the players from though the walls. Not tonight, not tomorrow, maybe never.
You see, for the past few months the actions of Fehr had flummoxed Bettman and Daly. And no matter how many times they told the 29 owners of their plight, no one would really believe that Fehr’s conviction and constitution would stand in the way of a new, more even CBA. Now Jeff Vinik (Tampa Bay), Larry Tanenbaum (Toronto), Mark Chipman (Winnipeg) and Ron Burkle (Pittsburgh) just might realize what Bettman, Daly, Murray Edwards (Calgary) and Jeremy Jacobs (Boston) have been saying all along: “this guy doesn’t want to do a deal.”
There is no question that Day 2 got heated. It will be interesting to see if that heat can turn into a real energy force on Day 3 in New York City.