Gamesmanship gone wrong: NHL's desperation evident in 'moratorium' mistake

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Stop the games, or the games won't start. Stop the attempts to intimidate and crack the union, or this deal won't get done anytime soon. It isn't working. Not only isn't it working, it's backfiring.

The NHL is frustrated with the NHL Players' Association, particularly with executive director Don Fehr. Fine. It has reason to be. But the league got itself into this mess, and this isn't the way out – at least not the best way.

The latest misstep came Wednesday. Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke on the phone. Fehr said the players did not want to negotiate off the owners' latest economic proposal, again.

Bettman suggested to Fehr a two-week moratorium.

Apparently the league heard Fehr had told players in a conference call that the owners' "date" was Dec. 1. I could not confirm Fehr said that. The NHLPA is not going to discuss details of an internal meeting, let alone sensitive information. But if true, it would make sense. I know of general managers telling people there won't be a season; I know of others telling people this will be settled soon – even that the puck will drop Jan. 1.

[Related: League asks union for two-week break in CBA talks]

The bottom line is this: We're still stuck in this cycle of mistrust, misinformation and misunderstanding. This is still too much about strategy and not enough about negotiating. And this was a mistake by Bettman, a shrewd man in many ways, but a poor politician.

Taking a breath is one thing. Taking a two-week break is another. Even if Bettman wanted to show the players that the owners have no "date" – let alone a date of Dec. 1 – this came off as a desperate attempt not to look desperate. This was a transparent attempt to put pressure on the players, essentially telling them they could come back to the table after they have missed another paycheck or two.

This was yet another move that could encourage the players to stick together and keep waiting, instead of scaring them into capitulating. It was yet another move that could prolong the lockout, instead of end it.

The owners locked out the players for an entire season in 2004-05 to get a salary cap but failed to lock down the system, which is why the players hired Fehr, the longtime baseball union boss, for this fight. They insulted the players with their opening offer this time, uniting them more than Fehr ever could.

They have set deadlines and declared they have made their best offer, only to make better offers later. They left a meeting after considering three PA proposals in a matter of minutes. Feeling their message wasn't getting through Fehr's filter, they attempted an end-around, posting a proposal on the league website and giving team executives a short, secret window to explain it to players. Many execs didn't feel comfortable and didn't take advantage of it; many players laughed it off and rallied around Fehr.

The NHL had to be frustrated further when the details of a private conversation between the top two leaders leaked into the media Thursday night. But again, the league let its frustration show. Are league leaders making the players sweat? Or are they letting the players see them sweat?

"I find it incredible that the Union is suggesting that we are somehow 'close' to a deal," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a message relayed by a spokesman. "They have utterly refused to negotiate for months. They have made essentially one proposal – five times. They continue to request a 'guaranteed' Players Share as part of the next agreement and we repeatedly tell them maybe they should get a reality check. And in the meantime, maybe they can make their position clear to us on 50-50, on the make-whole and on Player Contracting issues."

[Also: Wings' Ian White on Gary Bettman: 'I personally think he's an idiot']

All the NHLPA had to do was issue its standard statement: The players have made major concessions, haven't received anything in return and are willing to meet, as always.

Look, Fehr has dragged his feet. The players have taken shot after shot at Bettman. The sides are close on money only if you accept projections of growth – growth that is being threatened day by day. The players generally have continued to propose a guaranteed share, with raises, refusing to negotiate on a percentage basis.

The farther from the system, the harder to reach a deal. The whole point of the owners' system is to link the players' share to a percentage of revenue, and a big issue this time is financial relief in the first year. I understand why the players want to protect what they have, especially when they blame the owners for the lockout and the damage it is causing, and I understand the first year sets the bar for the following years. But I don't understand why they think the owners will assume all the risk again, or why they think the owners will cave on the first year.

The players say they want to give the owners incentive to grow revenues, and I think they feel the owners could do a better job. But the owners have incentive to grow revenues already, they had seven straight years of record revenues under the old system, and the players' projections of future growth have been more optimistic than the league's. So why not propose percentages that drop to 50 over time, or why not go straight from the old 57 to 50 and work on the league's "make-whole" provision, which is intended to make up the difference on current contracts with deferred payments?

[More: Teemu Selanne says his career likely over if lockout lasts all season]

The players do need to be realistic. They need stick to their principles, but in a way that appeals to the owners enough to close a deal. They aren't going to shame the owners into agreement. The owners canceled a season before, and no one should underestimate their stomach to do it again.

That said, the owners have to be realistic, too. They have to know who they're dealing with and deal with it – and with him. Their frustration is working against them. I doubt they will break the union again without another long, bloody battle. The players held out for a season before, and no one should underestimate their stomach to do it again.

Why keep attacking the contracting rules? Fehr is right to say entry-level deals, arbitration rights and free-agency eligibility become even more important to individual players as the players' share goes down. It is not too much to ask to keep things basically as they were – except for the elimination of back-diving, cap-circumventing contracts, which the players have been willing to discuss.

If the players' share is dramatically reduced, the owners should relent on how that share is distributed among the players, even if it isn't ideal. The owners will tell you they told the players the principles were important, not necessarily the specifics, and they hint that they can bend on contracting if the players will bend on economics. But the players will tell you the league has showed no wiggle room at the table.

[Also: The two sides of the CBA story]

Though the owners have come a long way on revenue sharing, though they have given the players assorted other things – single rooms on the road, a bigger playoff bonus pool, league-paid bonuses for top-three finishes in award voting, things like that – they have not given them an out, something, anything, that will satisfy them.

The owners have not accounted enough for the emotional aspect of this, and they have made too many empty threats. The players feel bullied. Their backs are up. They don't buy that "enough is enough." They are following their leader and fighting, because that's what players do, and they want to come back to work without feeling beaten up.

"We're comfortable that we have done everything we can reasonably do to get the game on the ice," Daly wrote in an e-mail Friday. "Have we made mistakes along the way? Probably, because obviously we haven't been successful to this point. But nobody should confuse that with a lack of commitment to the game."

I think the NHL wants to make a deal. I think the NHLPA wants to make a deal. I still think the odds are that they will make a deal and we will have some kind of season. I think that there is still plenty of time, and that's why we're still seeing so much posturing and brinksmanship – the NHL showing it isn't afraid to keep canceling games, Fehr coolly keeping a salary-cap challenge in his back pocket, both using the nuclear threat as leverage.

But I think both sides perceive weakness in the other. I think both sides still believe they can get the other to blink. And I think both sides better be careful. What if nobody blinks before it's too late? Push too far, miscalculate too much, and the moratorium will be much longer than two weeks.

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