Ask anyone who has had to haggle out a deal with Bettman behind closed doors and they’ll paint a picture of a brilliant, calculating and ruthless negotiator, who seizes every advantage, who when presented with an opportunity goes straight for the kill. He understands his opposition’s weak points, he knows his side’s strengths, and with a cool head and cold eyes he calculates the path to victory. That’s one reason why his employers, the owners, love him, and pay him the big bucks.
Consider the last NHL labour negotiations in 2004 and 2005. Employing classic divide and conquer tactics, understanding that hockey players in their hearts still feel darned lucky to be playing a game for a living, seeing the cracks in the infrastructure around Bob Goodenow, Bettman soon enough had the union membership enthusiastically sticking knives in the back of their own leader.
And the tipping point of that process?
When the players offered up a 24 per cent salary roll back to avoid a salary cap, and Bettman and the owners gratefully accepted their generosity as a starting point, and then ground them into the dust.
The players hired Donald Fehr as their union head because he is Bettman’s equal. He is there to guard them against falling prey to their own sentimentality about the game, to protect their interests in a negotiation in which everyone understood that they would be giving back, would be surrendering rights and surrendering money guaranteed in the previous collective agreement.
Clearly a student of history, Fehr began by restructuring the union hierarchy so that there was no longer a ready-made group of potential Brutuses who might be turned against him. Bettman and the owners have attempted the same strategy this time around, contacting players directly, whispering about revolts in the rank and file, suggesting that Fehr isn’t telling the whole truth, that it’s his presence alone that is preventing a deal. But so far, it doesn’t seem to be working nearly as well as it did against Goodenow.
We have now also had “good cop” owners enter the picture, we have had Sidney Crosby ride in on his white horse, we have had numerous propaganda volleys from both sides. But what’s been going on away from all of that staged drama is a hard, grind-it-out negotiation, with Fehr playing the same kind of frustrate-the-opposition defence that the New Jersey Devils employed in the bad old days.
It is going to be tough getting to the finish, though surely that’s still in the cards. Fehr is going to negotiate against a deadline – a real hard deadline to salvage the season , wherever that actually lies – and try to hold back any impulsive moves by his membership. Along the way, he’s going to grab whatever he can.
Like when the owners offered to up their “make whole” offer to $300-million this week, thinking that number would turn heads and shift the emotional tide and lead to the players rushing past the other details in their hurry to get back on the ice.
That’s great, Fehr said. Thanks for the money.
Now let’s negotiate the other stuff.
Gee, where have we seen that before?
In today’s Globe and Mail
I wonder what will make people say that about us 50 years from now. What are the big things we might be getting really wrong? Chemicals in our foods? Genetic modifications gone wrong? Climate change?
In sports, I think, the haunting question will be about head injuries. It wasn’t until 1943 in the National Football League that helmets became mandatory; in the National Hockey League, not until 36 years after that, in 1979. The first goalie mask wasn’t worn in the NHL until 1959.
And in a whole childhood and adolescence of playing goalie, I didn’t wear a mask until 1965, when I had to wear one on my college team. How could I have been so stupid?
A football wide receiver, 220 pounds, cuts across the middle of the field at 35 kilometres an hour; a linebacker, 240 pounds, cuts the other way at 20 km/hour. The wide receiver focuses on the ball; the linebacker focuses on the wide receiver, knowing that a good hit now won’t just break up the pass but will break down the focus and will of that wide receiver for each succeeding pass in the game.
Two hockey players, almost as big as the football players, but going even faster, colliding with each other and with the boards, glass and ice exaggerating the force of every hit.
Boxers, snapping jabs and hooks at each other’s head, round after round. (But no hitting below the belt; that’s not fair.) Ultimate Fighting: Fist, foot, elbow, knee, bone against bone – get your opponent down, get him defenceless and pound away.
In addition, there are the countless mini-collisions that never make the “Highlights of the Night.” They make players feel a little dizzy, but then seconds later, almost every time, they feel fine. So they must be fine.
As he points out in detail, they really aren’t.
During the lockout a couple of years ago, I watched a lot of hockey on ESPN Classic. The game in the 70s and even 80s was incredibly different and it wasn’t just the mullets. Even hard hitting physical teams like the Philadelphia Flyers or Boston Bruins played a far less physical than even finesse teams today do. The amount of violent hits just were not there. There were ugly incidents but the game was not nearly as physical as it is today. Part of it was the equipment. The equipment of the 70s was cloth with just a little plastic on you knee pads. Today’s players are using a lot of plastic and composite materials that make players not only feel invincible when they hit someone else but magnify the power and intensity of those hits on someone else. Add the fact that the average player is both faster, bigger, and heavier, you have a recipe for disaster, especially when you consider that the head is still the least protected parts of their body.
One thing that Dryden didn’t get at is this ridiculous idea that is spouted by Bettman is that the players have to govern this themselves. As shown in the NFL, players won’t clamp down on illegal hits, it has to come from the league. It has to hurt players in fines and in games lost (which hurts the team as well). This isn’t about the Zdeno Chara/Max Pacioretty hit (which I didn’t see as dirty) but it’s about a crazy about of players losing not only their careers but being able to function as human beings after they retire. As comments by Tie Domi about the death of Bob Probert show, players won’t even protect themselves from that fate so they need someone to step in and do it. The question is will the NHL do it before the Canadian or U.S. government steps in and does it for them?