Don Fehr, executive director for the National Hockey League Players Associations, is surrounded by hockey players as he speaks to reporters, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 in New York. Talks in the NHL labor fight broke down after just one hour Thursday night, and it isn't known when the league and the players' association would get back together.
Photograph by: Mary Altaffer), AP Photo
VANCOUVER — The two-word expletive that means "go forth and multiply" can be delivered in all sorts of ways.
But in the context of a relationship, probably nothing in the world says it more clearly than being dumped by voicemail. Unless it's by text message.
So when NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr walked off the podium after his press conference Thursday in New York -- having told the assembled media that, with all the concessions the players' side had offered in a new proposal, there wasn't enough difference left in the two sides' positions to prevent a new collective bargaining agreement -- he probably wasn't expecting to be stopped short of the door by a message left on his brother (and deputy) Steve's cell phone.
"Unacceptable," said the message from Bettman's 2-IC, Bill Daly. "Everything's off the table."
As reporters watched, fascinated, Don Fehr returned to the podium. Maybe it dawned on him that the message had probably been left while he was still on TV answering reporters' questions.
He was not happy, but he does a decent job of hiding the exact width and breadth of his displeasure. He's been through these wars before, in baseball.
Gary Bettman's been through them before, too. Repeatedly. But when he arrived for his moment in front of the microphones, he was one seething heap of New York lawyer. He's a pretty good actor, but I'm not sure, given the colour in his face, that his anger was a put-on.
It's pretty clear what happened: talks, which had begun so well on Tuesday, began to deteriorate late Wednesday night when the owners put nearly an extra $100 million into the "make whole" pool, meeting the players halfway in essence, and in Bettman's words, "the union's response was shockingly silent. It was 'thank you, we'll take the $100 million.' "
The owners left behind their counter-offer, which Bettman said required a simple "yes or no, not a negotiation session." Fehr tried to negotiate off it Thursday and the league hit the roof.
And immediately, the conspiracy theories began.
Was all that sudden bonhomie from the owners' side on Tuesday -- the meeting suggested by Bettman between six hand-picked owners on one side and as many players as the union wished to send on the other -- an elaborate setup?
Were Bettman's "moderates" -- Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle, Winnipeg's Mark Chipman, Toronto's Larry Tanenbaum and Tampa's Jeff Vinik -- really the NHL's Trojan horse, sent in to catch the players off-guard and get them stampeding toward a resolution? All the while knowing that as soon as Fehr was back in the room, he'd sniff out the ruse and throw up a roadblock, and make himself an easy scapegoat for the inevitable recriminations that would follow the next breakdown?
Is it too much to have a horse and a goat in the same paragraph?
On the other side, could the whack-a-mole game Fehr's been playing with the union's ever-moving target be happening because -- though he must have known from the start that he was playing a losing hand -- he's worried about what his own legacy might be, if he's unable to stem the tide of givebacks to the owners?
Could the players, 18 strong, have been so naive as to think that there wasn't something just a little fishy, a little orchestrated, about the sudden thaw from the owners' side? Were they really surprised when Jeremy Jacobs and Co. revealed the iron fist inside the velvet glove once it got down to specifics?
"The owners are beside themselves," railed Bettman. "Some of them, I've never seen so emotional. They told me the process is over."
It does kind of make you wonder what the players are thinking right now.
Maybe Fehr has been telling his guys that a collective bargaining negotiation is like buying a car.
That the rock-bottom price the salesman gives you at the beginning is going to change, perhaps several times, before the haggling is all done, so don't get all shirty about it. Keep battling and eventually you'll get a better deal.
If you can't get the price you want, maybe he'll throw in some options. You tell him to keep the extended warranty, maybe you'll get air-conditioning and the sun roof.
It sounded good.
So Bettman's opening gambit in the summer was a bloody insult? Everyone could see that. But in the end, he'd come around a little bit. You couldn't expect to win the negotiation, exactly, because he's the only dealer in town, unless you had your eye on a Lada, in which case Russia was only about two hard days away by air.
But hang in there and you could maybe walk away with your dignity.
If that's what the head of NHLPA has been telling his players, Thursday evening's events must have hit them like a stiff boot to the solar plexus and had them wondering if their hired gun was delusional.
Surely, they're smarter than to think they were -- are -- going to win this fight.
Surely they knew which way the day was going to end from the moment they found out that the only representatives the league had deigned to send to hear their proposal were Bill Daly and the dreaded Dr. Death, lockout lawyer Bob Batterman.
No Bettman; he was back at NHL headquarters, making Mongtomery Burns steeples with his fingers, composing his speech. And no owners; they had begun leaving in shifts during the day, getting out ahead of the storm.
Fehr put on a pretty good song and dance, making it sound as though it would have to be a really cynical league to reject the players' offer of a maximum eight-year contract length, an eight-year CBA term with an optional out after six, a nip here, a tuck there -- never exactly what the NHL had asked for, but closer.
But what he really was doing was a bit of sleight-of-hand. The sides weren't close, and he knew it. He kept changing the game and as soon as the league would try to put one fire out, another would spring up.
His statement that the players were proposing the eight-year maximum on contracts (the NHL wanted five) appears to have touched a nerve.
The five-year limit, Daly said, is "a hill we will die on."
The players -- hell, anyone who loves the game -- had better hope he doesn't mean that.
The thing about having burned the house down once before, only to build a bigger one in its place at zero cost, is that it makes the arsonist think it's just that simple.
On Twitter: Twitter.com/rcamcole
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