I don’t have to tell you, it was the strangest of days. And there have been a few of those in recent weeks. From “hills that we will die on” to disclaimers of interest and Scot Beckenbaugh, I thought we had witnessed it all in the past 40 days. And because of that, maybe the most important message of the day didn’t receive the notice it really should have.
While the hockey world was still spinning about the plight of one Brian Burke, the man that Burke calls his mentor was issuing a key message of his own, with the help of a few friends.
At 4:08 p.m. ET, an NHL public relations man whispered to me, “be prepared for a graphic with Jeremy Jacobs name on it.” No more than two minutes past before the chairman of the board of the NHL Board of Governors accompanied NHL commissioner Gary Bettman into the media room at a New York hotel.
Jacobs’ message was short and to the point. He apologized to the fans for the lockout then he gave his unfettered support for the commissioner who had been the centre of the work stoppage and the target of rumours of his demise since Sunday morning’s early settlement. The support was unwavering said Jacobs.
“The Board today also expressed its appreciation for the professionalism and commitment to our clubs and to the sport that commissioner Bettman and deputy commissioner (Bill) Daly displayed throughout this difficult period,” Jacobs said. “Gary, Bill and their staff worked tirelessly from long before the lockout began in an effort to reach a constructive conclusion. Gary and Bill have the complete and unconditional support of the Board and our gratitude.”
The message, in a word, was a message to the hockey world. Bettman will be in this position for a long time to come. It was a message for the other owners, the fans and especially for the Players’ Association. Despite the ridicule and bitterness hurled Bettman’s way by the players, Jacobs made it clear that Bettman was and will continue to be the face of the league office. To many, that message was as important as the unanimous vote to ratify the new CBA.
It was a message re-enforced by Bettman himself. He said he had no intention of going anywhere. And when you consider he has six years remaining on his contract at a rather healthy salary, why would he? Bettman also talked about his respect for a new and stable leadership of the NHLPA. To me, this wasn’t as much a peace offering as it was an acknowledgment that the players’ new found inner strength could not be taken lightly with this new labour agreement.
Buried within the new CBA are a great many committees to apparently demonstrate the partnership between the two sides. Beyond the competition committee that highlighted the last CBA, the groups will deal with health and safety, international growth, broadcasting, marketing and more. Players, owners, union and league staff are going to have put the 113 days of anger aside to help make the game more palatable for the fans.
That, to me, will be a tremendous and daunting challenge for the two sides. Two sides that never believed that the other would ever be able to hold together through the tough days of the lockout. Two sides, who while publicly tried to speak no ill will of the other, privately spoke of the other with venom that only the deadliest cobra would be proud.
And that’s why Wednesday’s message, that Gary is the man and will be for a long time was so important for that one group, the players, to hear. The message for Donald Fehr was simple. If you think you won something beyond the details of the new CBA, you are wrong. Bettman’s support from the owners is unwavering. Particularly from those closest to the commissioner. It would be ludicrous to suggest that some of the owners aren’t frustrated by how he runs the league and even runs his meetings, but they will remain silent for the next while as this agreement gets executed.
All this is to point out one simple thing: the relationship between the NHL and its players is still tenuous at best. Last weekend’s agreement was not an indication that they have put differences aside and will work harmoniously for the next 10 years. Far from it. The disagreements, grievances and contradictions between the two are going to be a fact of day-to-day life for the next eight years at a minimum and we should get use to it.
Supplemental discipline and realignment promise to be key battlegrounds between the two sides and while we can hope that those arguments will occur behind closed doors, we already know that once the game returns to the ice, we will start to hear that the groups are at it again.
It was a message that many in the Board meeting believed was important to relay. It was a message that, perhaps, many didn’t hear. But I suspect it was heard loud and clear in the offices of the NHLPA.