Suffice it to say, I was shocked like everyone else was when news came out that talks had broken down between the NHL and NHLPA yet again. After hearing from some of the media about how progress was imminent and a breakthrough might be at hand, discovering that the NHL had yet again dismissed the NHLPA’s graciousness was … what’s the word, predictable?
The problem Don Fehr has now is that he’s tipped his hand toward the NHL, and it's on the NHL's terms - and he’s started to box himself and the players in accordingly. By arguing for relatively trivial things like single-occupancy rooms on the road, free agency to start 48 hours after the end of the Finals, and a joint health committee instead of closing loopholes in restricted free agency, asking for walk-away rights in arbitration, altering how raises are determined on qualifying offers, demanding improved scheduling, and a host of other items which should have been much more important to the players, Fehr has conceded numerous areas to the owners that he can’t easily move back toward given the ground he’s staked out. Instead of offering different solutions to questions about contract length and handling of 1-way contracts against the cap, Fehr has let the NHL know “your approach is OK, we just need to figure out the numbers to go in the blank spots."
In short: while Fehr had done a masterful job of avoiding specifics prior to today, he pinned himself down relatively tightly by trying to play under the NHL’s rules – and it’s likely to cost him and the NHLPA dearly when all is said and done.
Oh sure, some people will say that “the two sides made progress today.”
That’s because the NHLPA conceded ground to the NHL in its offer, expecting the NHL would do the same - and the NHL refused to play along. The two sides made progress in the same way when your mom would say “you’re eating all of the food on your plate before you leave the table” and you’d say defiantly “no I won’t, you can't make me!” and then suck down a piece of carrot indignantly … which happened to come off the plate of food you were told to eat all of.
Full disclosure: I don’t do negotiations for a living. In fact, I don’t have to negotiate much of anything. That’s probably why I don’t get “wait until the last possible minute to try and get a deal done, try to screw the other side over as much as possible in the process” or “screw the deadline, it means nothing – let’s bring everything to a grinding halt and make everyone needlessly suffer. I do have to understand all sides of a problem in order to find a solution and then explain the possible scenarios that might result if different decisions are made, which is why I don’t understand “just get something done” when “get it done right” ends up working out so much better in the long-run. Both of those things probably explain why I look at what’s gone on with the CBA negotiations and shake my head thinking, “really – this is the best everyone can do?”
As such, I expect that what I’m about to suggest probably has no chance of happening. However, I’m not trying to say what everyone wants to hear or give the commonly-held consensus view. That’s easy to find. I also try not to put out completely far-fetched, “absolutely no way” suggestions (except maybe this time). However, at this point, I think Fehr has to make a critical choice. He reportedly has pressure from some players to get a deal done; however, he’s also likely trying to get them the best deal possible. He has to know that if he keeps going down the current road, the players are going to lose more and more. Should he keep going down that road for the sake of appeasing those players, or does he fight to get the best deal he can for them long-term?
My recommendation: Fehr should back out of what has already been proposed, and take a new position on matters.
Unorthodox? Yes. Fraught with danger? Absolutely. Potential to backfire? Sure it does. Probably scuttles the ’12-13 season? Probably. However, this isn’t about just saving the ’12-13 season, it’s about getting the best deal done possible. This is high-stakes poker, and Fehr knows he only gets one shot at striking a deal; when you’re playing this kind of game and you know you’re holding a bad hand, doubling down or going all-in doesn’t improve your chances of winning. Throw in the cards when possible and live to play another hand, and try to make the best of it from there. IMO, sticking with the current plan is akin to going all-in, and it’s likely to not end well for the NHLPA.
By stepping back and saying “let’s try this again,” Fehr concedes “maybe I’m not right on what the players have been asking for, I’m open to new ideas to get a deal done” and he has a chance to go after things the players were (or should be) fighting for and he didn’t get the first time around. It signals he’s willing to be flexible on some things and try to strike a deal in more than one way, instead of plowing ahead with the current plan. I’ve stated that given where both sides stand, I don’t think they can reach a deal that actually works
; that remains true even though today’s offer moves them somewhat closer.
Even more importantly, it gives Fehr a chance to go back to something he originally did but has since abandoned: put together ideas that pit owners against each other and attempt to divide them and keep them divided. He can outflank the NHL on areas that previously hadn’t been discussed but which are (should be) important to the players, and force the NHL to defend on more and more areas; the more points in dispute, the more points that he can win concessions on – and the more of those he can get, the better the deal he can really strike. Alternatively, he can put up a fight in those other areas and then gain concessions on some of the current stuff and then back off the new areas he challenged.
Oh sure, this could backfire. The players could panic and press for whatever deal they can get, the NHL could see his retrenching as a license to go full steam ahead with its wish list, … it’s not an easy, foolproof tactic to take. However, I don’t see how Fehr claws out a win for the players in the position he’s in; after conceding in critical areas, the best he can do is try to limit losses in the current position.
Fehr has time to throw in the cards and play another hand – but he lost a bunch of chips with his latest move. If he wants to change the playing field and unsettle the NHL and seize momentum, this would be an intriguing (and definitely unexpected) way to do it.