Gary Machiavelli

With the failure of mediation, the NHL has seemingly gone for a ‘Hail Mary’ move: asking for a direct meeting between owners and players without the presence of the leadership of either side. What should we make of this request?

First, the offer clearly favours the league over the union. There’s a temptation here to dismiss the players as jocks who don’t understand the finances of the game, but that would be unfair. What seems undeniable, however, is that in a meeting without labour lawyers the owners – older and with a long track record in business – as a group likely have a sizable advantage over the players – younger, and without the same level of success or experience in business. This is a proposal that plays to the NHL’s strengths and the union’s weaknesses.

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Second, the offer is likely made with the belief that the players should accept the NHL’s point of view, minus complicating factors. It’s been clear for some time now that the league’s ownership believes that Donald Fehr is misrepresenting it’s message to players. That seems unlikely, given that player representatives have been deeply involved in the meetings, but that’s the belief. Further, Gary Bettman inspires deep antipathy among players – the NHL likely further believes that the same message from a less distrusted spokesman will carry more weight.

This is not a negotiating strategy – really it’s an end-run around Fehr and a move that has the bonus of shifting the message from Bettman to more trusted spokespeople.

Third, if the NHLPA accepts there is at least some possibility that this helps move negotiations. A number of things might come out of such a meeting. The players, some of whom clearly believe there are internal divisions among ownership, may be influenced if a group of owners comes out and says the same things in a private meeting that Bettman’s been saying publicly. On the other hand, the owners may come to the realization that the chief negotiators among the players share Fehr’s point of view.

The bottom line is that this is a risky move for either side, but a move where the split of risk and reward clearly favours the NHL. It’s also a move that helps the NHL almost regardless of the outcome. That’s why they proposed it. If Fehr shot it down immediately, that would play to their message that he’s misleading the players. If the executive board and negotiating committee of the NHLPA opted to accept the meeting, the league could rightly place more confidence in its owners than the players could in their delegates. Finally, if the NHLPA does the most sensible thing and votes down the concept, the league simply gets to look like they’re trying to be creative while the players’ association is being intransigent. Representatives can also darkly hint that only Fehr’s influence swayed the vote, playing into the league’s whisper campaign against the NHLPA executive director.

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Superficially, the NHL offer looks like an act of desperation, a creative attempt to solve the impasse in negotiations. In reality, it’s a carefully considered, almost Machiavellian move where the vast majority of outcomes favour the league, regardless of how the union handles it. It was a nice play by Gary Bettman.

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  • If I was to be part of the Player, contingent meeting with the owners, I would suggest that yes we will make some concessions her, but in return the NHL has to fire Bettman from his postion. That would be one way of getting rid of him.
    Really this is just another ” filibuster” by Bettman in this prolonged lunacy!

  • vetinari

    On the issue of the PA de-certifying… couldn’t this back fire for their membership? Under most provincial and state labour laws, you typically have to give an employee notice, (or pay in lieu of notice, i.e. severance), to terminate them. Couldn’t a team like Edmonton potentially clear contracts like Horcoff’s, Khabibulin’s and others off the books by serving them termination notices and paying them a little severance money? Or does the fact that they are under contract change this?

  • Hair bag

    Hostess says it all to me.

    One thing to keep in mind is that people responsible for running and paying the bills for large ventures have to be looking far into the future.

    Given that the American economy is in a new phase, never seen before given intractable issues with international competition, poor prospects for GDP growth and gov’t debt, I imagine the American owners may be worried about their customer’s ability and interest in paying to attend in the future. Which means full North American expansion and a healthy NA TV deal are questionable.

    Decertification opens things up, but anyone who thinks they know where that will go is fooling themselves. The players would be well advised to lock in – a free market may not benefit anyone long term but the truly and functionally elite players. Most would lose out, probably to a very great extent compared to now.

  • wiseguy

    If decertification occurs, the NHL should investigate a restructuring where each team is sold to a corporate entity. Each owner would own a proportionate share of the corporation based on either previous revenues or appraised values of his team. The single entity that owns all teams can then legally dictate all rules, salary caps, individual contract maximums and length of term, etc. without a CBA. There is no collusion because it is all the internal workings of one company.
    The very profitable teams would have difficulty agreeing to this as it would be the ultimate revenue sharing, but if you can set a cap of $30 million per team with no guaranteed contracts, the profits that can be shared would be monstrous.

    • Yeah, I’ve thought about this idea as well. You’d essentially be franchising out the NHL teams, and then the NHL can make all the structural rules, but the teams are still independent as far as how they spend their money.

      The only problem would be convincing the richer teams to go for this. If the NHLPA decertifies though, I could see some teams breaking off from the NHL and trying to create their own league, and the remaining teams going to a model like this. For in reality, who freaking knows really. It’s a very, very, very dangerous gamble for the players to make.

  • KleptoKlown

    No matter when/if/how this lockout is resolved, I hope the fans speak the loudest with there dollars.

    I hope revenue is down, I hope ratings are down, and I hope attendance is down. Most importantly, I hope the fans scream “We will not accept this bullsh!t anymore!”

    If you truly love the sport of hockey, you will boycott the NHL for this season and maybe even next season.

    We the fans need to speak in the only language the owners AND the players understand. MONEY.

    Don’t watch on TV, Don’t buy tickets, Don’t buy merchandise. Only then will these stubborn and greedy rich pricks understand that we the fans, we the meal tickets are not to be taken for granted!

  • Surely any contract signed between the player and a team has as it’s central theme the CBA. If there is no longer a CBA then how can the contract hold water. The CBA is agreed to by the NHL & the NHLPA again if there is no longer an NHLPA who can enforce the contract ?? Some players may just walk away or retire and some team might do the same. Phx for example. If the PA decertifies it will be in court for a long long time

  • book¡e

    All this debate about decertifying is hogwash, I am a die hard fan and am sad to say but lets cancel the season and if both sides don’t want to negotiate after losing this season then cancel next season. Maybe its time for the egos of the players to realize that life goes on without the NHL and go see who else will pay you millions of dollars to play hockey… have fun in Russia or Europe. Hockey is all business and it hurts the fans who would just like to cheer on their teams to victory.