This reminds me of that scene in "Braveheart" when William Wallace is summoned to a meeting. He doesn't trust 'em. It doesn't matter.
"It's a trap," he is told. "Are you blind?"
"We've got to try," he says. "We can't do this alone. Joining the nobles is the only hope for our people. You know what happens if we don't take that chance?"
This smells like a trap. After two sessions with U.S. federal mediators went nowhere, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made a suggestion Thursday – a meeting between owners and players only.
It seems like a PR move. It seems like another negotiating tactic designed to go around NHL Players' Association leadership, like when the league gave executives a secret window to explain a proposal to players. It seems like a mismatch – seasoned businessmen vs. hockey players.
But they've got to try, at least under certain conditions. Joining the nobles is the only hope for the season. You know what happens if they don't take this chance?
The lockout will continue. The damage and the risks will grow. We'll have to see if something else leads to a deal – like the threat of dissolving the union and antitrust suits – or if all is lost for the second time in less than a decade and everyone heads into the unknown.
The bottom line is this: The players think the problem is Bettman. The owners think the problem is NHLPA executive director Don Fehr. So get them out of the room – along with their underlings – and let the owners and players talk face to face, heart to heart.
Two conditions: Allow all the owners to come, or at least a cross-section of them, and not just the few who have been involved in the negotiations, like hawk Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins. Allow lawyers to advise the players, so the seasoned businessmen don't have an unfair advantage.
The NHL says the ground rules are up for discussion. The NHLPA says the executive board and negotiating committee will consider it. We'll see if they can agree on this when they can't agree on so much.
Both sides are wary of exposing weaknesses the other side can exploit. Of course. Especially with potential legal battles looming. But isn't there also a time to finally lay your cards on the table? Wasn't it yesterday, or last month? As it stands now, the NHL is a house of cards, and a cold wind is blowing.
Let them get at the truth. Let the players find out if Bettman is really misrepresenting the owners. Let the owners find out if Fehr is really misrepresenting proposals to the players.
Is Bettman really out to crush the players? Is Fehr really out to crush the salary cap system? Do the actual owners and players really want to make a deal? If so, through all the rhetoric, what is really important to each side? How do they get this done?
If the owners are justified and united, if the players are educated and united, neither side should have anything to fear from a little open dialogue.
Frankly, it's about time for a little open dialogue with the owners – and again, all the owners, not just Jacobs, the Washington Capitals' Ted Leonsis, the Minnesota Wild's Craig Leipold and the Calgary Flames' Murray Edwards.
They have hid behind Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly. They have hid under the protective blanket of the bylaw forcing their silence. They deserve zero sympathy if they feel Bettman has taken too much grief, if they feel their message has not gotten through Fehr's filter.
They don't speak to the media, partly because they don't like the media's filter, either. Well, they don't have to speak to the media. They have their own media.
They posted one of their proposals on NHL.com when they wanted the players to see it. Some considered it a dirty trick, and in terms of negotiating etiquette, it might have been. I had no problem with that one, though, because they posted it in its entirety for everyone to see. I'm in favor of transparency.
Well, let's hear from the owners on NHL.com and NHL Network now. If disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan can explain suspensions via league-produced videos – one of the great innovations the league has made, in my opinion – the owners can explain their position directly to the players and the fans.
At least let the players hear from the owners themselves in private, when the owners can say things they wouldn't say publicly. The secret window thing was sneaky, but this isn't sneaky.
As for the players, they don't like the paternalistic, patronizing approach of the owners. They want to be treated like men, not children. Many of them have acted like men throughout this process, but all of them have been tainted by those who have acted like children.
The players haven't muzzled themselves, which is to their credit, but not everything they have said has been to their credit.
This is a chance to rise above the juvenile attacks on Bettman – from all the name-calling to the retweeting of a death wish – and show that the players are as engaged as they say they are. This is a chance to show that the players know the business and mean business. This is a chance to earn the respect that the players feel they deserve.
Instead of calling out Bettman, they can call out the owners themselves. They can tell them why they feel bullied. They can tell them why what they're offering isn't enough. They can tell them what they want. They can give good reasons.
Players, you say the owners want what they want, because they want what they want. Well, what about you?
Maybe it's a trap. But they've got to try. Negotiation hasn't worked. Mediation hasn't worked. No one knows if dissolving the union will work.
The players don't trust Bettman. The owners don't trust Fehr. Fine. Then someone has to trust himself enough to stand up and make a difference, because if no one does, you know what will happen?