Note: The following was written prior to the NHL’s latest CBA offer to the NHLPA. 

The consensus among NHL pundits and bloggers suggests the league has – on paper – “won” its latest labor war with the NHLPA.

As in the last lockout, the owners are getting what they wanted regarding the main issues. The players have agreed to reduce their share of revenue from 57 percent down to 50 percent. Rather than the owners honoring existing contracts, the players are willing to accept a “make whole” option of deferred escrow payments. The PA is also willing to accept term limits on contracts.

Granted,  some haggling remains over the details. The league wants the reduction of the players share implemented immediately while the players want it gradually phased in. The PA still hopes to negotiate off the $300 million “make whole” option, which the owners consider part of their “final offer”. The league wants a five-year term limit on contracts (except for seven years for teams re-signing their owner players), while the players prefer an eight-year limit. (Note: the NHL’s latest proposal has bumped it up from five to six years, but maintain seven years for re-signed players).

The league will undoubtedly maintain other issues still exist which must be sorted out. If we believe the earlier press releases from both sides, however, much of the secondary issues were either addressed, or reached a point where agreement could be reached without much delay.

Despite those lingering issues, when the ink is dry on the new CBA, it’ll be heralded as a victory for the NHL owners.

So, to use a war metaphor, why is the league still bombing the city when its inhabitants have surrendered?

Winning at the negotiating table apparently isn’t enough for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, along with lieutenants like hard-nosed labor lawyer Bob Batterman and hawkish team owners like Boston’s Jeremy Jacobs, Minnesota’s Craig Leipold and Calgary’s Murray Edwards.  It appears they also want to humiliate the NHLPA, like they did following the last lockout.

It can be argued that – to paraphrase the famous line from the movie “The Godfather”  -  this isn’t personal with Bettman and his crew but strictly business. Negotiations involving billions of dollars are often cutthroat. The attempts to drive a wedge between NHLPA director Donald Fehr and the players in recent months could be considered part of that bruising process.

The goals of the league, however, don’t seem as clear or as worthwhile as they were in the previous lockout.

Back then, the league sought “cost certainty” via a salary cap, telling the fans it needed a system to stop runaway spending on players salaries, selling the image of the Bettman and the owners fighting for their very survival against greedy players and agents.

It was BS, of course, but most fans didn’t know that, simply because most don’t care about the business of hockey, let alone  understand it. They just want to enjoy the product.

Still, it was effective, and most fans supported the league’s efforts, despite the cost of an entire season. In the end, the league got its cost certainty while the NHLPA was crushed, its leadership in disarray.

One gets the sense the NHL brain trust was hoping the PA would remain beaten down, or at least hire a leader more accommodating to whatever the league sought in future CBA negotiations.

The players, however, eventually regrouped, turfed out two directors, and hired former Major League Baseball union head Donald Fehr to handle their affairs.

Fehr, as everyone knows, came into the NHLPA with a well-earned reputation for having beaten the MLB owners at the negotiating table.

Some saw Fehr’s hiring as a signal the players would fight to eliminate the salary cap and all the other gains made by the owners in the previous lockout. Instead, it’s apparent Fehr was brought in not to overhaul the existing system, but to try to get the best deal he could for the players.

How else to explain the PA’s willingness to concede to a 50-50 division of revenue, allow the owners not to honor existing contract, and agree to accept term limits on contracts? That’s hardly the results expected by someone supposedly planning to ride roughshod over the salary cap.

Every previous NHL CBA ultimately wound up favoring the players, and its been argued the league negotiators want to ensure that, this time, they’ve closed off as many loopholes – real and imagined – as possible.

That’s as may be, but having wrung significant concessions out of the vaunted Fehr and the players, there appears more at work here than just ensuring all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed. Though Bettman and his team will deny this ever got personal with Fehr, it certainly feels like it has.

Bettman’s blow-up following the owners-players meetings in early December didn’t appear staged for show. Anyone who has followed the commissioner since 1993 knows he likes to project an aura of unflappability bordering on smugness.

That was clearly lacking in that now-infamous press conference, where Bettman appeared genuinely pissed. As one columnist pointed out, the commissioner and his sidekick Bill Daly didn’t act like people who were “winning”.

Perhaps they were feeling pressure from ownership to get a deal done, but there may be more here than just trying to squeeze the PA for a little more.

Bettman could be trying to do the one thing the MLB owners couldn’t: best Donald Fehr. Not just at the negotiating table, but crush him to send a message to the players against ever trying to bring in a hired gun from other sports leagues to fight their labor battles.

Is Bettman willing to risk losing another season to get what he wants? Is he really willing to let this play out in the courtroom rather than the boardroom?

Time will tell, but considering Bettman and his hawks already gassed one full NHL season in the recent past to achieve their goals, one shouldn’t underestimate his resolve. (Note: The December 28th offer from the league, amid rumors the owners don’t consider another lost season a viable option, suggests a cancelled season might not be in the offing after all.)

In recent weeks there’s been plenty of concern from fans, pundits and bloggers over the damage currently being inflicted upon the league’s brand by this lockout, stressing how killing another season could do irreparable damage.

Bettman, however, clearly isn’t worried about that, apparently secure in his belief the fans will return as they always have. He stated as much months ago when he called NHL fans the greatest in the world, though his attempt to curry favor with them fell flat.

If Bettman were genuinely concerned about fan support following a lockout, it never would’ve gone this far. Hell, the lockout probably wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

But he’s not concerned, and that’s why he seems so keen to engage in the current game of “chicken” with Fehr and the players.

If the players actually go file a disclaimer of interest on January 2, Bettman – by filing a civil suit in New York state to declare the legality of the lockout, and by filing a complaint with the US National Labor Relations Board – is betting the courts will rule against the PA.

Should the NHLPA’s disclaimer of interest be rejected by either the NY Court or the NLRB, the PA will face two stark choices.

The first is to file for decertification. That risks dragging this dispute on for months, effectively killing this season, putting next season into jeopardy, and have considerable consequences upon their careers and earning potential.

The second is to capitulate and accept the league’s latest offer.

Either way, the players lose.

Bettman is gambling he can win this thing, best the formidable Donald Fehr, and bring the players to heel once and for all.

Once that’s done, the NHL will return to action either this season or next, the fans will return, the league will work on recouping its short-term losses, and hope that this time, the owners won’t become their own worst enemies by finding loopholes to exploit which eventually benefit the players.

But Bettman will have want he wanted. Crushing not just the NHLPA once and for all, but also beating the once- indomitable Donald Fehr.

Note: Much of the aforementioned now depends on what happens in the wake of the league’s December 28th proposal).

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