Well, we finally got to the crux of the NHL labor problem. Actually, we were always there, but Thursday just cemented it.
This is not about money, or contract length, or any of the other minutiae that collective bargaining creates. It is about Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and NHLPA head Don Fehr, and it always was.
The owners demonized Fehr the day he took the job running the NHL Players Association because they were sure he wanted to destroy them – a neat trick since he’d never tried to do that in his years in baseball, and that sport has had labor peace for the last 17 years, most of which he was there for.
The players already demonized Gary Bettman, and by extension the hardline owners who had kept him secure as commissioner, and the hardest of the hardliners was, is, and will always be Jeremy Jacobs.
So it was Jacobs v. Fehr from the start, and negotiations are not done over personalities. They are destroyed over personalities.
And for this parlous state of affairs, we can actually ask a question: Why do the moderate owners in the league never step up and say, “We want to be the ones in the room”? Why did they do what they always do – sit back and expect the hardliners to get them the best deal possible? Why do they end up being the ones complaining the deal doesn’t work for them when they’ve done so little to craft the deal themselves?
We ask this because baseball learned that lesson 17 years ago, while Fehr was still in charge of the union. They realized that the deal is more important than the personalities, and the deals got done. Then Fehr moved on, replaced himself by a moderate figure in Michael Weiner, and the players and owners are now closer to actually being partners than ever before. There is now labor peace, the game has grown dramatically, and everyone seems quite happy.
Is this Fehr’s doing alone? Of course not. Owners had to realize that beating the union shouldn’t be the goal. Getting the deal should be the goal. And when baseball’s owners figured that out, Fehr no longer had to be the iron bar in everyone’s spokes.
Why then, you ask, did the NHLPA hire him? Because they’d been hammered in the previous deal when Bob Goodenow was their boss. He let it be about personalities, too, and the owners were only happy to oblige in kind, and with superior firepower. That cost a season, and a television contract. And that deal turned out to be bad for some owners too – not because the union crafted it so brilliantly, but because the owners circumvented it so often that it became not a contract but a footpath.
There is a reason why the distribution of wealth in the NHL is so top-heavy, after all. The few teams that can make money do, and don’t really like distributing it -- not to the poorest franchise who are in some cases beyond redemption, and definitely not to middle-class clubs who are trying to operate on the square and still gets their hats blocked year after year.
But come CBA time, they all unite around a common theme – hating the guy who runs the NHLPA. It is the hardliners’ song of choice, and it is so now.
It is interesting that talks allegedly went well when Fehr and Bettman were out of the room – although, bafflingly, Jacobs and Murray Edwards of Calgary, another fierce hardliner, were allowed to stay in. Then when the players wanted Fehr to return, owners said that could be a deal-breaker. And, as events showed, it was. A voicemail rejection is essentially saying, “We didn’t need your proposal to reject it. We needed only to know you would make one.”
And who handled that presser? Bettman. The designated bad-news-deliverer-for-hire. The money is that good that he would rather be equated for all time with the worst part of the sport than not do it.
So it goes. This season seems deader than dead now, because the hardline owners would rather kill Fehr than run their hockey teams. And the players cannot abandon Fehr without losing face and being worse off than they were after the Goodenow fiasco. This is indisputably true, and leaves us with the true issue dividing these two sides.
One side has Jeremy Jacobs. The other side has Don Fehr. Fehr isn’t leaving the room if Jacobs isn’t, and Jacobs is never leaving the room. Impasse-by-ass.
And the moderate owners– screwed again, by their own disinterest. They deserve it, too, because there are more of them than any other faction, but they don’t want to bother enough to crash the room and make the deal that can potentially enrich them all. They’d rather let the hardliners deliver them a contract, and then let the wealthiest clubs steamroll their way around it.
So for once it isn’t about the money. And at this point, the only way to save the season is to bring the hardline owners led by Jacobs and Fehr together, lock them in a room – and then negotiate somewhere else.
You do that, you get a deal. You don’t do that, and celebrity curling becomes the new hot TV property.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com