NEW YORK - The explosion took several strange and electric minutes, almost in slow motion.
After two days of bargaining and several offers and counter-offers, National Hockey League Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr addressed the media and expressed significant optimism, all but saying that the major components of a new collective bargaining agreement with the league had been agreed to, and that while it was not done, they were in terrific shape. Dollars, pension, the big issues. If you were listening, you had to think a season was imminent.
“Previously we didn’t think we were nearly as far apart as the owners did, but I think it’s clear now after the positions the players took today that there doesn’t seem to be much room, certainly not unbridgeable room,” Fehr said.
And as he spoke, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly called his counterpart Steve Fehr’s cell phone and, finding nobody to answer, left a voice mail informing the players that their offer was not acceptable, that something or everything was off the table, that the league, in essence, was furious.
Steve Fehr didn’t check the voicemail until after his brother had left the stage, and the unravelling began.
It was a bizarre scene. Players began to give interviews, but were halted after a few minutes to line back up on the podium where they sat or stood, checking their phones. Steve Fehr returned to the room and whispered in the ear of Winnipeg Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey as everyone stood and watched. The room buzzed. Everyone waited.
And Fehr returned to deliver the bad news.
“It looks like this is not going to be resolved in the immediate future,” he said.
A few minutes later NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who along with the league’s owners had declined to attend the afternoon meeting during which the players offered a counter-proposal to the NHL’s last offer, came to speak, and he delivered a lengthy and angry screed that will define a part of his tenure with the league.
“That sense of optimism almost inexplicably disappeared Wednesday afternoon,” said Bettman, who was visibly agitated. “Things were not of the same tone as they had been on Tuesday … the key was to have a long-term agreement … with a system that would work appropriately.
“That reminds me of the last time the players said we were close, and we were a billion dollars apart … that goes in the rhetoric of spin and hype and all that … I don’t know why he did that … I find it almost incomprehensible that he did that … I am disappointed beyond belief that we are where we are tonight, and we’re going to have to take a deep breath and try to regroup.”
“For the union to suggest we are close is cherry picking,” said Daly, citing the fact that compliance buyouts and escrow limits were raised, which the NHL did not find acceptable. The league’s offer on Wednesday night was a yes-or-no offer, and Fehr attempted to negotiate off it. The league was outraged, or at least pretended to be.
“I keep hearing we have some magic date,” Bettman said. “You know what my magic date was? It should have been October 11, when we should have opened the season.”
It was an epic, blistering attack on Fehr, whom a senior league official had compared to a “suicide bomber” in an unattributed comment to Adrian Dater of The Denver Post earlier in the day, which is how the league has privately thought of Fehr the entire time. The league said that all make-whole money is now off the table, along with every other concession offered this week. Bettman said the moderate owners that had made progress this week were furious, too.
“Maybe they thought we didn’t have the resolve, which would be inconsistent with this ownership group … At some point you have to say this is the best that we can do.”
It was a farce. They were not so far apart; the gap was steadily narrowing, and none of this was the kind of thing that should threaten a season. Bettman’s righteous anger kept unspooling, but this felt like NHL and the Proskauer Rose playbook. This time they are coming for everything they didn’t get after losing a season in 2005. They are coming for the player-contract issues they gave back seven years ago, which privately league officials had dismissed at various points during this process. They are pushing the boot down on the PA’s throat, which keeps trying to move under their feet.
The season isn’t dead. But there’s wreckage everywhere.
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