Those seeking signs of early “cracks” in the unity of the NHL owners or players during this lockout could be disappointed.
The news last Friday of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his lieutenant Bill Daly flying to Toronto for a secret, unscheduled meeting with NHLPA director Donald Fehr and his brother and sidekick Steven Fehr was a surprising development for NHL observers.
After all, last week’s talks on secondary issues concluded with no sign of the two sides moving closer to a CBA resolution.
The visit by Bettman and Daly was also seen as an “A-ha!” moment for one player agent, who took to Twitter proclaiming the pair going to Toronto to meet with the Fehrs was proof the commissioner was being pressured by NHL owners to make a deal.
That theme was picked up by an Ottawa hockey columnist, citing an unnamed source suggesting cracks may be appearing in the unity of the NHL owners.
Well, if Bettman and Daly were being pressured by the owners to make a deal, we’d never know it by this week’s negotiations, which focused upon more non-core economic issues, and which Daly subsequently categorized Wednesday as “largely unproductive”. That says all we need to know about questioning the owners unity at this stage of the lockout.
Meanwhile, some folks look at the high growing number of NHL players heading overseas to skate in European leagues during the lockout as a sign of division among the PA ranks, suggesting they’re somehow betraying those remaining in North America.
That assumption is sillier than those citing Bettman’s trip to PA headquarters as a sign of discontent among NHL owners.
Players heading overseas is not a sign of dissension among the PA ranks. They’re not going there for the money – most are getting very little compared to their NHL salaries – but rather to get some meaningful playing time whilst waiting for this lockout to end.
Those staying in North America are doing so for a number of reasons. Some did the European thing last time around and are opting to stay home and work out. Some are still considering their options, unwilling to rush overseas if there’s a chance the lockout should end in the coming weeks. A number are on entry level contracts and have been sent to the AHL for the lockout’s duration. Some are still recovering from last season’s injuries or off-season surgeries. Some simply haven’t received any offers from European clubs.
Even Fehr has no problem with those heading overseas, pointing out they’re doing what they must during the lockout, and their decisions had no impact upon PA solidarity.
As the PA has no “gag order” on its membership, we’d know if there were bad feelings among the players toward those skating overseas, let alone any other threats to player unity over the course of this lockout.
The same, however, cannot be said for the NHL owners, who face stiff penalties in the form of expensive fines if they dare step a smidgen out of line and voice anything contrary to the league script. We have no idea if there is any grumbling amid the ownership ranks regarding this lockout.
I suspect there are some owners unhappy over this situation. Some could be owners of non-traditional, struggling markets upset over the lack of support they’ve received from their big market peers. Indeed, I had anticipated a potential feud between those two over the course of this lockout potentially threatening owner unity, but that has yet to materialize.
It’s possible some of the more “dovish” big market owners aren’t pleased with the amount of revenue they’re currently lost in this lockout, with potentially more losses to come as this labor dispute drags on.
But all we have is suspicions and speculation. Until one or more of those owners breaks ranks and speaks out publicly, we don’t know how many – if any – owners are unhappy over Bettman’s handling of this situation.
That’s because the commissioner, aided by his small but influential cabal of hawkish owners, runs a very tight ship. As per David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail:
“Under Bettman, governors’ meetings are tightly scripted affairs. Major decisions are often thrashed out by the 10-member executive committee and then presented to the other owners. Most of the talking is done by Bettman, a few trusted NHL executives such as deputy commissioner Bill Daly, chief operating officer John Collins or vice-president Colin Campbell. Then the outcome is announced as a unanimous decision by the board of governors.
“It’s not like a board-of-governors meeting is everyone sitting around exchanging ideas,” said one former club owner who admires Bettman. “A board-of-governors meeting is a three-hour lecture from Gary, a PowerPoint on how we’re doing, you break and that’s it. There’s never once a discussion of what’s going on.”
The piece does go on to cite Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke’s claim that Bettman’s style isn’t dictatorial. Considering Burke has at times attended CBA negotiations on the league’s side, as well as the tight leash the commish has upon team owners and their respective front office staffs, it’s difficult to take the Leafs GM’s comments at face value.
For those who anticipate one of those dovish, big market owners – like, say, NY Rangers owner Jim Dolan – to challenge Bettman’s authority during this lockout, the following from the Toronto Star (referencing a new biography on Bettman by Jonathan Gatehouse) illustrates the folly of awaiting such a move:
“Those who remember Dolan’s attempt to stage an anti-Bettman coup over the issue of Internet rights remember the sad truth of a crap-kicking. As Gatehouse’s book points out, not only did Bettman begin legal proceedings to strip Dolan of control of the Rangers, Dolan was also forced to write a grovelling apology for his actions that acknowledged he could have been kicked out of the league.”
If Bettman has the power to bring someone like Dolan to heel, we can understand why those owners unhappy over the lockout are unwilling to challenge the commissioner authority.
Thus,we’re more likely to see any discord from the players side via traditional and social media well before we’d get any inkling of it on the owners side.
Until we see a palace coup by a number of influential owners over Bettman’s handling of the CBA talks play out in the press, perhaps the only real indicator he’s being pressured to make a deal is if we suddenly see a more conciliatory approach from the league in their negotiations with the PA.
Fans, bloggers and pundits are anxious for this lockout to end soon, rather than see it drag on and possibly jeopardize this season. It’s understandable why some folks are looking for any kind of sign one side or the other may be ready to capitulate.
Sadly, it may be weeks, perhaps months, maybe longer, before we’ll see any significant cracks in the unity of either side in this NHL lockout.