Has Bettman Blundered?

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is acknowledged as a savvy, hard-nosed labor negotiator, but his outright rejection of the NHLPA’s latest CBA offers coupled with a recent attempt at an end-run around the NHLPA leadership could be tactical errors.

The league’s rejection of the PA’s three offers last Thursday, followed by Bettman’s terse press conference and  subsequent return from Toronto to New York was seen as a tactical move to pressure the PA leadership and membership to either accept the league’s latest offer or negotiate off it.

With both sides seemingly close to agreement on hockey-related revenue (the key sticking point in the negotiations) which could bring about a schedule-saving CBA resolution, it was theatrical “shock-and-awe”, testing NHLPA director Donald Fehr’s leadership and the players’ resolve.

Within days, it was revealed the league then issued a carefully-worded memo to the team owners and their general managers allowing the latter a 48-hour window to reach out to their players regarding any questions they may have regarding the league’s latest CBA proposal.

 “We understand that some of you are being contacted by one or more of your players,” the memo read. “A failure to follow these rules can both set us back in our effort to resolve this work stoppage and cause serious legal problems.

“The NHLPA is, in fact and in law, the sole collective bargaining representative of the Players. Any effort to motivate the Players must be to have them act through their union, not instead of or in opposition to it.

“YOU MAY NOT: ‘Negotiate’ with a Player.’ This means you may not explore alternatives or variations to the proposals on the table. As a matter of labor law, you are permitted to express the views and opinions of the Club and the League concerning the proposal.”

This move is seen as an attempt to do an “end-run” around Fehr and appeal directly to those players fearful of losing any part of their salaries to a potentially shortened schedule.

In other words, attempt to create a split among the players and put more pressure upon Fehr to accept the league’s proposal.

The PA leadership wasn’t impressed by this tactic. Special counsel Stephen Fehr released the following statement:

 “Most owners are not allowed to attend bargaining meetings. No owners are allowed to speak to the media about the bargaining. It is interesting that they are secretly unleashed to talk to the players about the meetings the players can attend, but the owners cannot.”

Once the news of the memo broke, the growing consensus among the punditry was the league, rather than shake the players’ resolve, may have actually stiffened it.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly attempted to shrug off the criticism, calling it a “complete non-issue”. To date, there’s been little indication the move elicited inquiries from the players.

Nevertheless, concerns have been raised by pundits and bloggers the move  may have set back CBA negotiations at a delicate point, potentially jeopardizing the league’s hopes of getting an agreement in place to implement a full 82-game schedule commencing on November 2.

But, as The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle pointed out, this could also be seen as a sign the league is getting “a little anxious”, suggesting a compromise might not be as far away as the rhetoric suggests.

It’s a noteworthy point. As Mirtle wrote, moves like this usually come much later into these CBA talks, usually as an “end-game” strategy.

The league may be reaching the point where they don’t want to risk losing any significant time, and could be trying to force the issue among the players in hopes of bringing this lockout to a swift conclusion.

If so, it appears the gambit failed, as there’s no sign of the players breaking ranks over this. Several general managers, like Philadelphia’s Paul Holmgren and Carolina’s Jim Rutherford, claimed they weren’t in touch with any of their players, nor did any contact them. A report out of Vancouver claimed Canucks players weren’t even aware their management had a short window to contact them.

What the actual fallout from this could be remains to be seen.

It could be an indicator the league is reaching its “end-game”, that the owners are getting anxious, pushing Bettman and his negotiators to resolve this quickly to save as much of the season as possible.

Or, it could prove a setback in negotiationss, driving a deeper wedge between the two sides, heightening the mistrust, and potentially putting a resolution for a season-saving deal at risk.

If it’s the latter, it could prove a significant blunder by a usually savvy NHL commissioner.


  1. I believe that this was an ill advised attempt to undermine the players resolve and whoever suggested it, whether it was Betteman or one of his minions, has only reenforced the unions solidarity. Maybe years ago during the previous CBA negotiations a move such as this might have been a tipping point but this NHLPA leader has been all about openness and communication with the players, which is a 180 degree turnaround from those times, and his efforts cannot be undone by a few whispered comments or clandestine emails.
    This experiment may have actually showcased how desperate the owners are to taking the locks off the doors and having hockey games played in their arenas rather than the other way around. While Betteman postured and pontificated about how long the owners were prepared to go without games being played his position may actually mirror his stature, short on substance.
    While Betteman being Betteman worked in the past he is up against a new adversary; Donald being Donald and the outcome is far from a forgone conclusion.

  2. I take the opposite view and will say that word is leaking that players are getting antsy because they are beginning to see the Fehr con job.
    The lesser paid players are starting to see that Fehr is looking out much more for the stars over the average player and the rich teams over the poor teams just like he did in baseball.
    They have missed a couple of paychecks,lets wait and see after they lose a few more.
    the fans are upset and have the right to be but it is at a point now where a step back will be 3 steps forward for the future.
    It is also very interesting that at the first day of the work stoppage the fans were 65% for the players and right now it is 70% for the owners and if the players keep making those idiotic comments that will continue to increase.
    While there is no doubt a compromise of some sort has to be done there is no way Fehr will force Bettman into anything like one of those 3 stupid proposals he made.
    The owners offer was not that bad and is much closer to the offer that should be tweaked to get a deal done.

    • You should quit getting caught up in Bettman’s hype. Bettman played the public last week by dropping the 82 game can still be played bomb. The offer put forward with the “50-50″ split, still took away from their existing contracts, and that is a stopping point for the players. End of story.

      The proposal by the NHL last week masked a lot of key points, and Bettman played the public to a t. Good for him, but the deal he proposed was not good enough, and just because he says there was a 50-50 split, the HRR was calculated differently.

      Bettman is a little troll, and I hope this lockout costs him his job.

      • This is what i just read…. “you are so biased, and manipulated. By the way bettmans a troll, so i am also biased and manipulated”. This is millionaires fighting billionaires, there is no loser. 360 degree greed. Players are taking a stance which 2004 showed will not work, the league will out wait them. I just want the players to realize they are fighting a useless battle and to take there obscene amount of money and shut up.

      • Bettman is at least trying to negotiate and has made the only 2 real proposals for bargaining.
        Fehr on the other hand has done nothing except make offers that say we like it the way it is and want nothing to change.
        If anyone is covering up the real issues it is Fehr who is only looking out for the upper end players and screwing the average players.
        Fehr has not tried any negotiating at all at this point.
        If anyone is getting caught up in being conned it is the ones that believe the very selective garbage Fehr is saying and the stuff he very convieniently leaves out.
        With the public now in the owners corner at an almost 70% in favour it seems that most are seeing thru Fehr and his tinted glass views.
        As for the players contracts if you think those players and their agents were not fully aware of them going down when they were negotiating them and got more then they expected because of that then you are dreaming.
        if any player thinks he will end up screwed then he can demand his contract get torn up and negotiate a new one.
        i know a lot of owners that would agree to that but i bet not one single player will make that offer.

        • 70% Where did you get that number? Pull it out of a hat? If any player feels he got screwed he can tear up his contract and demand a new one??? What planet are you on?

          The fact you think the owner offer was fair, but that all 3 of the PA offers were stupid, shows just what an uneducated fool you are. There was nothing stupid about the PA’s offers (esp. the 3rd one), anymore than the owners offer was stupid. It was an offer trying to get what their side wanted, while appeasing the other side enough to agree. It didn’t work in either case. The only thing that was stupid was that after weeks of complaining that the PA didn’t make any counter-offers, Gary and his crew dismissed the PA’s offers in about 15 minutes. Did they want counter offers or not?

          Lastly, your total lack of any grasp of what’s going on is shown by your idea that Fehr is concerned about the rich teams over the poor teams. In fact the exact opposite is true right now. Fehr and the PA are very concerned about the fact that revenue sharing is too low in the league, and it’s making the small/poor teams lose money. They keep trying to get revenue sharing among the teams to $240 million and the owners just keep laughing. Florida, Nashville, Tampa, Carolina, Columbus, Phoenix….not really viable franchises without increased revenue sharing,and the bigger teams just don’t care.

          • Thanks for providing me with my laugh for today.
            Your name calling,huffing and puffing and foot stomping tells us all we need to know about your maturity level.
            Maybe in about another 10 years you may sit at the adults table.
            But i will donate a minute just to say you should go to TSN.CA and read todays column and the posts that follow.
            You will see those posts heavily in favour of the owners including many saying they started out for the players but now back the owners 100%.
            Many sites are the same way if you bothered to do any research.

  3. Hi TopRightCorner:
    I respect your opinion and your viewpoint but I believe that Fehr is actually working and looking out more for the lesser paid players than he is for the higher paid stars. I base this partly on the fact that Fehr is adamant that the league honour all previous contracts in their entirety and that they are not subject to anywhere between a 12 to 24 percent clawback. the clawback (you gotta love that definition) will effect those making the league minimum far more than it will those making the maximum in terms of actual money taken home. A player making five hundred thousand dollars per year will feel an extra $60 to $120 thousand dollar a year hit far more than Sidney, Alex or Shea will.
    I feel that if the general publics opinion is turning in favour of the owners then the NHL is doing a better job as far as PR goes than the union is, or the fans, of which I am one, want to see NHL hockey so bad that they are overlooking the fact that NHL games would still be happening if the league had agreed to negotiate as per the last CBA until a new one was reached and the owners had not snapped padlocks on their facilities.
    You bring up some interesting points and I agree that if both sides actually wanted to find common ground and settle this thing it would have been settled by now. As far as Fehr presenting three stupid proposals, I don’t see it that way but rather I see the union trying to recoup some of what they lost in their last CBA and stil trying to find a way that everyone makes and keeps as much money as possible.
    The last, barely legal and underhanded, move the league made by circumventing protocal and not informing the union that they were going to allow owners and players to exchange emails regarding the lockout was not in the best interest of fair, open and honest negotiations and may have caused negotiations to drag on even longer. I don’t know who came up with that brain storm but suffice to say that it did not achieve the desired affect.
    I as much as anyone would like to see NHL games ASAP but I am willing to save my money and wait this out and hopefully when all the posturing is done a fair and decently long term deal can be reached that will ensure that a stoppage like this isn’t needed for many, many a year

    • Hi Ahab,
      I want hockey too and i want a deal that works for everyone and makes the next one easy to work so that lockouts/strikes are a thing of the past.
      You make good points as a fan on the players side even if i do disagree with some.
      While PR is better on the owners side one thing i see by fans is a better view of the overall picture on both sides.
      The fan base has commented a lot on the owners costs rising significantly over the last 7 years but Fehr and the players continue to say that is not their problem and that any decline in revenues or rise in costs is all on the owners.
      This is what is killing them along with the continued stupid comments made by players that always come across as all i care about is me.
      i know of 3rd/4th line players that would disagree with you that Fehr is looking out for them and even to the point that some that are not happy have been told to keep quiet.
      fehr stands up there with 100 million worth of players standing behind him but no average players and most whiners have been the super rich stars.
      I agree present contracts should be honoured but the pwners offer is much closer to working out for that and the NHLPA offers are not even offers but ways to keep things status quo and that has been noticed by most fans.
      I suppose you could say the owners are at least trying,although should try harder,but the players seem to not be trying at all and that is why fans have turned in favour of the owners.
      The owners making 2 poposals in a row has also been called weakness by some and put Fehr where he thinks he is in the drivers seat and that has hurt things since that is not the case.
      Both sides are still at fault for sure but right now it is more the owners have shown to be the lesser evil and i think are far more ready to walk away from talks then the players.
      The really bad thing here is if another season is lost then the next CBA will again be very ugly and that is what everyone wants to avoid.
      Really i am with many that say use the owners proposal and change it to 52/51/51/50/50/50 and everyone should get what they want with a little being given back by both sides.
      But i am very anti Fehr and have said all along he will never be interested in an even and fair deal and will screw it up and piss off the owners to the point where they say the hell with it kill the season.

  4. Hi TopRightCorner:
    I really enjoy being able to discuss the issues with you and have you see some of what I see as pertinent as well as me being able to see some of what you see as pertinent, especially without resorting to name calling or flaming each other. It is not often that people can engage in a bit of back and forth on this site without resorting to name calling and I bet that if they could put you and I together in a room we could hammer out a new CBA that would work to the benefit of all parties.
    While I remain on the players side on the majority of issues I will concede that owners need to make a decent profit otherwise why even be in the game, or business actually, and so I respectfully agree to disagree with your stand but look forward to reading your future posts on this subject as well as others on this site.
    Stay passionate.

  5. We can sit, speculate and ponder this to death but in the end who really knows? I still believe this will be resolved however it will now likely be a shortened season. Do I miss it? Not nearly as much as I thought I would. Thankfully there’s lot’s of other distractions to enjoy in N. America…

    • Right from the start of talks i predicted American thanksgiving as the settle date and i hope that happens.
      But i agree that so far i have not missed it at all and there is always lots of other things going on.
      I don’t think there are any sports i would miss anymore which is far different then 10 or more years ago.
      I guess once salaries got way out of hand and cost going to games became way too much sports became TV shows and all TV shows go on hiatus or into reruns until the next season so we get used to not watching them.

  6. Hi Ahab you _)*&^%%&^^,LOL.

    I think most fans on both sides could get together and work out a deal but both sides are determined to ‘win’ and that is a very serious problem.
    Even many writers and sportscasters that are split on which side they are on but see an obvious deal is there.
    One thing i do agree with you on is that the contracts signed should not take a 12 or more percent hit,the owners deserve to pay.
    In the end i could see it spread out and not all out of the players pocket either 5 percent tops and only on contracts that are 5 mil or more because i know players/agents negotiated expecting it so it is no surprise.
    The other thing bad is basing things on 5+ percent growth and no factor for decline or cost increase,that needs to be on some kind of scale where if growth is bigger it is not all in owners pockets and if in decline or higher expenses the players chip in extra so escrow must be better worked out.
    The deal is there,everyone sees it.
    Well except for Fehr,but you knew i was going to say that, :).

  7. I’m not really on any side here cause these are all a bunch of greedy buggers fighting over their cajillion dollars but when Bettman says something absolutely moronic and completely the opposite of what he has done thus far like ‘I’m not going to negotiate publically,’ I have to give a big ‘Fack You You Lying Sack ‘O Horse Hoo Ha,’ shout out to Gary, the lying arse perfect candidate to replace Ontario’s departing lying arse Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty.

  8. A let of good points on both sides here. . .The bottom line here is that the owners are ultimately in charge. If push came to shove, the pwners could bring in replacement players (which would be poor), some lower paid players would cross the line and play and within 2-3 years drafted players would come in under the owners terms and hockey would be back….not as good,…..but back. Eventually the sport would find a level and the owners would still be the same owners. The players wouldn’t. Look at it this way, if you and your fellow workers did what the players did, you would all be replaced.
    On a different note, how many more players need to get hurt oversees before they start breaking ranks. The Bruins better have something good backing up Rask or they are in trouble.

  9. the longer this lockout goes on the less people care if there’s a season. Bettman and the rest of the NHL have to realize that hockey fan’s patience isn’t endless and while the fans may eventually come back they also might find other ways to spend their entertainment dollar. all this squabling over percentages might seem important to some but is it really worth completely shutting down the league? i understand there are teams struggling to make ends meet but just how much rope should the teams that can’t make a go of it be given before they’re either moved or contracted? the NHL has to realize that they’re responsible for a lot of their own money issues and an ongoing refusal to deal with the financial sinkhole that is the Coyotes franchise makes them seem like complete hypocrites to their own members.