For the second straight frigid night in New York City, rival leaders Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman spoke to the media in muted tones. No jabs, no barbs, and for the most part, no content. That fact in itself is indicative of the desire of both the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association to get the game out of the board room and back on the ice.
Fehr and his staff, plus seven or eight players, will spend the night digesting the league’s counter offer to the players’ counter offer to the league’s latest offer (got that?). At some point on Wednesday, probably following a few phone calls to the NHL office on clarifications of the offer, the union will march over to the 15th-floor board room of the league and present, you guessed it, a counter offer.
And I’m not really trying to make light of the process, but the negotiation tactics have evolved to a different level between these two rivals, who will soon be partners. There doesn’t appear to be horse trading of issues, near as much as there is an exchange of economic philosophies. There aren’t any real face-to-face talks; less than three hours on Dec. 31, and less than an hour on Jan. 1. It’s more of pushing these comprehensive packages across the table, and retreat to meet internally. And quite frankly, most hockey fans could care less how the deal is done, as long as the deal gets done.
And yes, there are still issues to be resolved. Pension issues, term issues. There are probably no more than four issues that keep these two from making a deal stick. But those four issues might be enough to keep the two sides squabbling; enough to stop the players from a Disclaimer of Interest notification at the end the day Wednesday? Maybe, maybe not. Bettman downplayed the whole disclaiming process, in part because he sees some progress in these negotiations. And I truly believe he sees an opportunity to get a deal done quickly. Fehr has constantly avoided the question, calling it “an internal union matter.” If there is continued progress between the sides, the best way to measure that progress will be if the Players’ Association does or does not in fact send a letter to the league informing them that the union no longer represents the players in the CBA process. I just can’t imagine the damage to the process if that letter is sent.
It was very easy to get excited about the future after Day 2 of the talks, but I’m not completely convinced that we are hours, or even days, away from a deal. There’s a lot of work still to be done and compromises to be made. Whether or not both sides are prepared to compromise enough is the great mystery. And why is that? Compromise can only occur with some level of trust. And that is something you see very little of between the players and the owners.
Dare I remind you that in early December, Bill Daly and Steve Fehr stood shoulder to shoulder in this city and told the hockey world that there was great progress made. “More than any other day of the lock-out” was the quote that stuck. That quote sent hockey fans all over the continent in search of the pending announcement of the 60-game schedule that would have started Dec. 22. And then within 48 hours, we were sent into a funk with the theatrics of Gary and Don and in search of the “hill they will die on.”
So when we see and hear Fehr and Bettman being polite, discreet and diplomatic, I don’t get as much hopeful as I do cautious. Could we see a third straight day of progress and positivity? Yes, it’s possible.
But, please, please don’t be too upset if Day 3 isn’t full of the same positive vibe that we saw end 2012 and begin in 2013.