Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the negotiation process during this lockout is how the two sides can have such a diametrically opposed version of their own reality. You’d expect them to have conflicting viewpoints and a propensity to put their own spin on the issues. But what has been utterly incomprehensible is how each side presents its version of the events as truth and how they can be so different.
A prime example of that occurred last Thursday night when talks between the two sides blew up in Manhattan. The players and owners could not have been coming from more polar opposites. And it makes you wonder how much each side is actually listening to the other when their recollection of what happened is so opposed.
After the meetings, Winnipeg Jets defenseman and the de facto leader among the players, Ron Hainsey, said the players were told both by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and outside counsel Bob Batterman Wednesday night that any attempt to have NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr rejoin negotiations would be viewed as a deal breaker.
It was a version of the events that was supported by NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider when he appeared on The Hockey News Radio Show with Adam Proteau Friday afternoon.
“Ron Hainsey said to Bill Daly and (Calgary Flames owner) Murray Edwards, essentially, ‘We’re not deal-closers, we can’t finish this off. We’re very close, guys, let’s get in a room and work it out, but we’ve got to have Don and Steve and Mathieu and all of our staff in there, but we’re right here’,” Schneider said. “And (the owners) essentially said, ‘If Don’s in the room, it’s a deal-breaker.’ And I don’t know what you do with that. I don’t know how you work with that. They cannot tell us who should represent us. It’s like you’re buying a house and the seller says, ‘I’m not going to sell you the house if you don’t hire this realtor’. That’s essentially what they’re saying.”
Daly, however, fired back at Schneider, saying his version of the events was inaccurate and, in fact, “Don’s name was never even mentioned in that conversation,” when Daly and Edwards spoke with Hainsey. He also said he’s not surprised Schneider got it wrong, since he wasn’t involved in the meeting.
“The players told us that they were insisting on the termination of the players-owners only meeting dynamic, which we felt had been helpful in gaining some traction in talks,” Daly said in an email to THN.com. “They told us, two or three times in the same conversation, that their decision in that regard was non-negotiable. Our owners weren't happy with that decision and essentially decided to disengage.”
It was at that time the owners started to leave town, leaving Daly and outside counsel Bob Batterman as the point men for the NHL. At this point, neither NHL commissioner Gary Bettman nor Fehr had been involved directly in the talks.
“I’m sorry if they apparently thought that they got the ‘B Team’ on Thursday, but Bob Batterman and I had full authority to represent our ownership group in that meeting,” Daly wrote. “Not that they would or should know this, but I have negotiated CBAs before. And Bob has done hundreds of them. Enough said.”
The fact the two sides are looking to get back to the bargaining table as early as this week indicates they’re probably closer to making a deal than the NHL is willing to let on. And while the league insists all its previous offers are off the table, that doesn’t mean it can’t get put back on the table in very short order. And when either side tells hockey fans it has given all it can give and can surrender no more, everyone’s bullsh— detector should immediately be activated.
The most ironic thing about talks falling off the rails last week is that both sides are closer to a deal now than they ever have been during this process. Not near as close as Fehr would have people believe, but not as far apart as the NHL has portrayed the chasm to be, either.
Until then, you’re not likely to get fed a healthy diet of realism from either side. The next time they walk in lockstep on anything will be when they announce they have finally forged an agreement. They’ll hope then that everyone forgets about how they doled out their own version of reality for the past couple of months. And the sad thing is that hockey fans will just be so happy to see the game back on the ice that they’ll probably do just that.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.