Every person has a breaking point. Everyone. There is no exception to the rule. You have one, I have one, Donald Fehr has one and Gary Bettman has one. Thursday night, Fehr and the NHLPA seemingly pushed Bettman past his line.
In what was certainly the most heated exchange of the lockout, Bettman spoke to the media after talks broke down on Thursday in remarkable fashion. Why don't we quickly go through what happened here:
The NHLPA met internally for hours -- something that delayed the meeting between sides until the late afternoon -- and then finally met with the NHL at around five Thursday afternoon. The players were furious to realize that no owners were in the room for the meeting, but continued the meeting anyway. The players gave their most recent proposal and Bill Daly left the hotel in a rush as soon as it was completed.
Shortly after the meetings were over, Fehr spoke to the media and said that the two sides were very close and even used the word "complete" when talking about the CBA process. During the press conference the NHL called Steve Fehr to inform him that the NHL has rejected the NHLPA's proposal -- seriously, that's not a joke -- and that everything the owners gave in concessions was off the table.
Enter Bettman, who absolutely eviscerated Fehr and the NHLPA in a press conference that had more than one media member refer to Bettman as "the angriest they had ever seen him."
Here's the thing about Fehr. The players hired him to be the head of the NHLPA for a reason. They thought he could combat Bettman in the negotiating room, and protect the stance they were prepared to fight for. The dignified stance. The "we deserve what's ours" stance. And for the most part, he's done a brilliant job at getting the NHL to not only negotiate against itself but continue to move in the player's direction.
In July, August, September and even October everything Fehr touched turned to gold. He was patient when the NHL was rushing, and rushed when the NHL wanted to slow things down. He infuriated owners, refused to back off his proposal and essentially forced the NHL to keep conceding. But the more the NHL gave, the further Fehr pushed. Every time the NHL took a step towards the players, Fehr took a half step backwards; and in the beginning, it worked perfectly.
Until this week. We all had a fear that this was going to happen. What would happen when Fehr pushed Bettman too far? What would Bettman do when he finally snapped? Take a bad deal for the owners or blow everything up? You now know the answer to that question.
Bettman exploded, and suddenly all the moderate owners who had control of the room seem to be gone. Either the on the fence owners have swapped sides and have overwhelmed them, or the moderates themselves are now so infuriated (or embarrassed) that they're going to the dark side.
Bettman told the media that everything the NHL proposed this week is off the table. The make whole, concessions on contracting rights and even player's pensions, gone. Nothing would remain. Square one. Boom.
And now what? If Fehr actually did push too hard -- meaning the show from Bettman and Daly Thursday wasn't a show at all -- then the NHLPA is in serious trouble. Whether or not you agree with the players (I know many of you give full blame to the owners) you have to admit that Fehr was always playing with fire. Players never have leverage in these negotiations. Their careers have a shelf life, as does their money and their fame. Owners are billionaires to begin with. They can afford to lose a year or two of hockey no problem. Which is why this was always going to be a "get the best deal you can" situation for the players.
Except Fehr never viewed it that way. Fehr never played the game under those rules. And he might have just paid for it dearly on Thursday. Trust me, common knowledge suggests the NHLPA will splinter sooner or later. It's inevitable. There are too many players, making not enough money to keep this going. It might not happen tomorrow or even this year, but eventually the union should crack.
But, while Fehr is to blame for continuing to push when he had a good deal on the table (apparently five-year max contracts, 5% variance year-to-year on contracts and an eight-year CBA was enough to kill the deal) the NHL is to blame for the tone of these talks. Their first two offers were insulting, they set the tone for things to get ugly. And while Thursday is as ugly as it has gotten, the two sides have never fully trusted each other thanks to Bettman's first offer.
Not to mention the NHL's never ending "but he started it" stance on Fehr. It's as though the NHL doesn't realize Fehr is here for the players, not to make Bettman's life easier. To be fair, we would be much further along on this process if the owners smartened up back in September. But they were always confident they could break Fehr, they couldn't.
But Fehr has made a huge error if the owners are serious about starting over. Through this process Fehr has been part of the problem. Not THE problem, but part of it. From Michael Russo after last night:
From deep inside players side: "We were ready to play again. But Don came in (Wed.) and told us we could get more and to hold out"
Remember what I've said from the beginning of all of this. Those of you who believe in how Fehr is playing this game, will you feel the same way if we lose this season and then the NHLPA accepts a deal they could have had Thursday?
I didn't think so.
And ask yourself this as well: What would have happened if the NHLPA voted on the NHL's proposal yesterday? My guess is they would have taken the deal. That's just personal speculation, though. Too few players see five-year deals anyway, so why fight so hard for them?
This doesn't remove Bettman from this equation, either. His reaction to Fehr pushing should have been a threat to pull the offer, not the actual act of pulling it. If Bettman was serious with pulling the make whole concept in addition to other concessions they may as well cancel the season now. The sides are too close for Bettman to throw a temper tantrum and destroy it all. But he's done that before; so why assume he can't do it now?
At this point, no one knows much of anything anyway.
And fans might be at a breaking point themselves.