Last week I speculated about whether or not Donald Fehr pushed too hard when he attempted to continue negotiating off of a "take it or leave it" deal the NHL proposed on Thursday night.
And while I did place criticism on Fehr for the way he pushed on Thursday, it's now time to take a good look at Gary Bettman's role in these talks. And that role is the chameleon.
Bettman is a chameleon for a variety of reasons. Think about all the different masks he has worn during these negotiations. In the beginning he was the tough negotiator, ready to talk but throwing out an offer that clearly set the tone for the rest of the negotiations. After reviewing and rejecting the NHLPA's offers, Bettman suddenly became the "willing" negotiator, throwing out a 50-50 offer which was supposed to be the golden deal to solve the lockout.
It wasn't, and shortly after -- when no deal could be reached before the September deadline which started this lockout -- he was the sad commissioner, sickened by the fact that he needed to enforce the third lockout during his short tenure.
From there we saw upset Bettman, ready to negotiate again Bettman, frustrated Bettman, hurt Bettman and finally furious Bettman. Furious Bettman was on full display Thursday when a literally shaking commissioner attacked Fehr and the NHLPA (but mostly Fehr) about their refusal to want to negotiate and work with the process.
But is that true?
Say what you want about Bettman, he isn't a stupid man. He's a very good negotiator, knows what buttons to hit and is brilliant at deflecting blame. It's a true skill. Thursday was a perfect example. Fehr took a huge risk by telling the media (and the hockey world) that the two sides were dangerously close to a deal. Bettman -- who without a doubt saw what was being said by Fehr -- made it a point to not only crush the NHLPA's offer, but take a defensive stance for the fans by blaming Fehr for whipping the hockey world up into an emotional frenzy. It was a swift blow by Bettman which was supposed to be the final stake in the claim that Fehr has been nothing but toxic during these negotiations from the beginning.
Bettman does, however, seem to forget about his poisonous acts during these negotiations. Twice he's put "take it or leave it" deals on the table. And twice the NHLPA has rejected them. Twice he's said "the owners aren't willing to move any further" and yet the owners have moved forward anyway. There are times when Bettman claimed he was the one who kept the hardline owners from taking over the room, and then there are times when Bettman is the one agreeing with them.
And when you take a good hard look at these talks, you'll see that when talks do break off, it's generally Bettman who is shutting them down. There isn't a better example than Bettman proposing a two-week layoff in talks to allow the two sides to get their stories straight. That break didn't last -- nor was it accepted by the NHLPA in the first place -- but it showed another brilliant stroke by Bettman. The more time he takes, the more paychecks the players miss.
No matter what Bettman does, though, there is a consistent theme. He makes everything that has gone wrong during these talks seem like it's Fehr's fault. Multiple times he's attacked whether or not Fehr has been open with his players and claims that there has been a "Fehr filter" on everything the NHLPA is told from the meetings. Recently, Bettman and the owners questioned whether or not Fehr was witholding information from one of their offers to ensure the players wouldn't take the deal. Those claims were disproven by the players, but even if you don't believe them, just remember that all kinds of different players are in the room while these negotiations are going on -- don't you think one of them would have said something if Fehr was holding back information.
Why does any of this matter? Because the two sides are so close they can taste an agreement. On Thursday Bettman levied a threat that the NHL's most recent offer (including the make whole provision) was taken off the table. There's no word as to whether or not that's true. My guess is that it's not. But if it is, then Bettman and the owners are not only sacrificing this season, but taking the past three months of negotiations and throwing them out the window.
Personally, I don't think the deal is off the table. But remember that Bettman did lockout the 2004 season over around $3-million per team, so it's in the realm of possibility for him to do the same right now. At the end of the day, we don't know how split the room really is when it comes to the moderate owners and the hardline owners. It would seem like the hardliners have it, but according to reports on Sunday both sides are pushing their leaders to get back to the table.
For now, Bettman and co seem more interested in making Fehr seem as though he doesn't want to negotiate, he only wants to win. To this point, that strategy hasn't worked. And yet Bettman seems to think it's the ONLY thing that matters.
I agree that the players pushed hard on Thursday. I also agree that the owners have all the leverage and that the players need to be careful with just how far they push the owners. To this point, Bettman and the owners have bent. But you have to believe that at some point the owners will hit their limit. Maybe we hit that point Thursday. Maybe we didn't.
All we know is that Bettman hasn't made things easy. He takes it as a personal insult that Fehr negotiates very much like he negotiates. And maybe that's why this is taking so long.
Either way, the two sides are as close as they have ever been. Even if it feels as though they've never been further apart.