Thursday's breakdown in CBA negotiations led to far and away the most entertaining three press conferences we've seen since the lockout began (Wednesday night's empty podium notwithstanding).
First, Donald Fehr hosted a short, uplifting presser suggesting the two sides were close. Then he stepped away, checked his phone, and immediately returned for a second, much more disappointing presser where he announced the NHL had just left a voicemail rejecting the players' latest offer.
Finally, Gary Bettman and Bill Daly gave us the main event, presser three, where they were as flustered as we've seen them to date, telling the media that the negotiations had turned sour because Donald Fehr and the Union refused to negotiate.
Unfortunately, while the whole thing was somewhat entertaining, it wasn't nearly as entertaining as actual hockey games would be right about now, and they don't appear to be coming soon.
Again, this is the Union's doing, according to Bettman and Daly. But if you aren't comfortable taking those two at their word, four of the owners that stepped into the room Tuesday night in Bettman's absence have released statements corroborating both the frustration and the reason for it.
Ron Burkle, Mark Chipman, Larry Tanenbaum and Jeff Vinik released a joint statement of their own shortly after the presser, individually expressing their disappointment at the way things are going. Let's take a look at each, beginning with Wednesday's purported hero of the hour, Ron Burkle:
The idea to put players and owners together in the same room was a refreshing idea. Commissioner Bettman should be thanked for proposing it and the Fehrs should be thanked for agreeing to it.
The players came with a strong desire to get back to playing hockey. They were professional and did a good job of expressing their concerns and listening to ours.
We wanted to move quickly and decisively. We have all spent too much time without any real progress at the expense of our fans, our sponsor and the communities we serve. It was time to make bold moves and get a deal. Many people think we got over our skis and they are probably right, but we wanted to do everything we could to get back to hockey now. We didn't hold back.
We made substantial movement on our end quickly, but unfortunately that was not met with the same level of movement from the other side. The players asked us to be patient and keep working with them. It's not what they do and they wanted us to know they were committed. We understood and appreciated their situation. We came back with an aggressive commitment to pensions which we felt was well received. We needed a response on key items that were important to us, but we were optimistic that we were down to very few issues. I believe a deal was within reach.
We were therefore surprised when the Fehrs made a unilateral and "non-negotiable" decision — which is their right, to end the player/owner process that has moved us farther in two days than we moved at any time in the past months.
I want to thank the players involved for their hard work as we tried to reach a deal.
I hope that going backwards does not prevent a deal.
Mark Chipman, Chairman and Governor of the Winnipeg Jets:
"I'd like to thank the NHL for giving me the opportunity to participate in this very important process.
I came here optimistic that we could find a solution. That sense of optimism grew after our first few sessions, including the small group discussions late last night.
Regrettably, we have been unable to close the divide on some critical issues that we feel are essential to the immediate and long-term health of our game.
While I sense there are some members of the players association that understand our perspective on these issues, clearly there are many that don't.
I am deeply disappointed that we were unable to bring this extremely unfortunate situation to a successful conclusion and I wish to apologize to our fans and sponsors for letting them down."
Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment:
"I was pleased to be asked to join the Player/Owner negotiation sessions. I had hoped that my perspective both as a businessman and as one of the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs would be helpful to the process. Like all other teams, this work stoppage has hurt our fans, our employees and our business. Neither the owners nor the players will ever recover the losses incurred with this work stoppage.
I understand how important it is to have a strong league and 30 healthy teams. I must admit that I was shocked at how things have played out over the last 48 hours. The sessions on Tuesday felt cooperative with an air of goodwill. I was optimistic and conveyed my optimism to the Board of Governors at our Wednesday meeting. However, when we reconvened with the players on Wednesday afternoon, it was like someone had thrown a switch.
The atmosphere had completely changed. Nevertheless, the owners tried to push forward and made a number of concessions and proposals, which were not well-received. I question whether the union is interested in making an agreement.
I am very disappointed and disillusioned. Had I not experienced this process myself, I might not have believed it. Like all hockey fans, I am hopeful this situation can be resolved as soon as possible. I miss our game."
And finally, Jeff Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning, with the exclamation mark:
"After working this week with our players toward what we hoped would be a new agreement, owners presented a proposal we believed would benefit those great players, ownership, and, ultimately, our fans for many years to come. While trust was built and progress was made along the way, unfortunately, our proposal was rejected by the Union's leadership. My love for the game is only superseded by my commitment to our fans and I hold out hope we can soon join with our players and return the game back to its rightful place on the ice."
I think it's clear why the statements were released (as well as why, say, Jeremy Jacobs wasn't invited to give input): these four owners, all billed as moderates, were effectively reintroduced to us over the last few days as bipartisan givers, willing to do what it took to make a deal.
Hockey fans are supposed to like and trust them in a way many don't like or trust the two guys from whom we normally hear. Hence, their accounts are invaluable for corroboration. They're character witnesses.
So do you buy it? It's definitely believable. By all accounts, Donald Fehr is a difficult man. Perhaps he went too far on Thursday?
If you don't buy it, however, here's what this collection of statements is: the next step in an ongoing strategy to discredit Fehr and paint him as the villain. After all, it's not just grumpy, blinky ol' Bettman's saying it anymore. Now the four guys agree, and everyone knows the four guys know where it's at.
If you're of the mind that this is the angle, what Ron Hainsey said to Pat Leonard would seem a part of the same strategy.
Unfortunately, the players lawyered up and all that optimism and free-flowing speech came to a halt. This is why you never call your lawyer, people. Sure, he may be trained to notice when someone is taking advantage of you, but all this progress came to a halt the moment he walked in the door. Sure, so did all the advantage-taking, but clearly, he's the problem, right?
In the end, here's what we know for sure. CBA negotiations got ugly again on Thursday. Or maybe they've been ugly all week.
Finally, speaking of ugly, regardless of how we're all feeling now, I think we can all agree that the worst part of Thursday's CBA negotiations was Steve Fehr's sweater.