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.”
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.