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Friday, November 30, 2012
Debate: Benefits of players-owners meeting

By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance

Scott Burnside and Craig Custance discuss the merits of a players-owners only meeting.

BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, interesting times in Lockout Land, no? After spending, oh, about 10 minutes with federal mediators before those mediators ran screaming from the room, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offered to go off the negotiating grid by allowing the players to sit down mano-a-mano with the owners. Sources told ESPN.com that there were no restrictions on the offer and, as of Friday, the players were mulling over just how to respond to the curious offer.

A lot of folks are skeptical about the offer as though this is some sort of John LeCarre novel and is all some sort of cleverly constructed trap from which the players will never escape (actually, that’s called the Columbus Blue Jackets, but that’s a story for another day). First, kudos to Bettman for understanding the depth of dislike the players have for him. And while it would also take his counterpart Donald Fehr out of the proceedings at least for the time being, I don’t see how the players can’t take advantage. If I am a player (and I rarely pretend to be one), I’d ask that as many owners as possible attend. But I’d be especially interested in hearing from the owners that are believed to be more moderate, owners like Geoff Molson of the Montreal Canadiens and Ron Burkle, one of the owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

No one is suggesting the players will have to sign a deal before they’re let out of the room, so why not have an open dialogue about the issues confronting the two sides with a group that has been under a punitive gag order from the commissioner? In short, what’s the harm?

CUSTANCE: We're supposed to be critical thinkers, so I've spent a lot of time since the news emerged trying to think of the downside here for the players. It's been suggested that this is a PR stunt or misdirection by the league to divert attention from the fact that mediation was a complete failure (and if so, great plan, because it worked).

But even if that's the case, what's the harm in opening up the lines of communication between ownership and players? One of the criticisms of the NHL's approach has been that a small number of owners, like Boston's Jeremy Jacobs, have had the most influence and face time with the players. When contrasted with the NHLPA's strategy that has allowed for any interested players to attend negotiating meetings, the strategy looked restrictive. It invited questions as to whether or not moderate owners truly had a voice in these negotiations.

Now, if there's no restrictions on which owners can attend, then I don't see the downside. Players with the Flyers truly can get an idea of where Ed Snider stands, which has been a source of debate. Players with the Red Wings can ask Mike Ilitch, who in non-lockout years they are quick to praise for his generosity, why that organization hasn't been more involved. At the very least, it would appear to provide accountability rather than just pointing fingers at the commissioner.

But ultimately, can you move any closer to a deal without the two biggest players in the room in Bettman and Fehr?

BURNSIDE: That’s a great question. I spoke Friday with a longtime observer of these events, and he suggested that to take Donald and Steve Fehr and the NHLPA staff out of the mix is to put the players at a disadvantage because they’re not lawyers, that’s why the players hire agents, etc. But I think the point is that this is about taking advantage of a dialogue that wasn’t available before. I don’t think the idea is that the players and the owners bring their notebooks and write up a new CBA. Nice idea, but I think instead this will be about detoxifying the air. There is such a level of mistrust between the two sides -- specifically as it relates to how the players view the owners and the owners’ motivation -- that this has the potential to be a real defining moment in the negotiations. For instance, don’t you think the players are curious about why the owners didn’t respond to their last proposal with a counter? Might be interesting to ask Molson or Snider or Ilitch that one, and maybe the answer will lead to something on which to build an actual deal.

CUSTANCE: You raise an interesting point, Scotty. These players are among the best athletes in the world, highly trained to excel at hockey. When it comes to other things, like negotiating and debate, they're smart enough to hire somebody trained to do so. So if I were making the decision, I would sincerely thank the league for being open to a new avenue of dealmaking, but I would request permission to expand the meeting. At the very least, I would ask to include a lawyer or an experienced agent or two who represents a large number of players -- maybe Don Meehan, Don Baizley or Pat Brisson. These guys cut deals with NHL owners for a living; it seems like a waste of a resource to keep their abilities and ideas sidelined for a meeting like this.

But you're right -- at the very least, this a chance for the owners to articulate why the system needs more money and restrictions from the players than has already been conceded. I believe that if there's a compelling case to be made for the health and future of the sport, players might be receptive to it. Maybe I'm naive. I'm sure they'll provide us all with a transcript of this meeting, right?

BURNSIDE: I’d pay to attend that meeting, Craig. Heck, get the NHL Network to televise it, and I guarantee hockey fans everywhere would tune in.

I wonder how this will all play out leading into Wednesday’s board of governors’ meeting in New York. I know the league was hopeful that the players would want to meet as quickly as possible given this new twist to the proceedings. I wonder, assuming they do get together, whether that changes the dynamics at the BOG next week. Does Bettman’s offer to step away really suggest a shift in the power base within the ownership group, an acknowledgment that the league’s process has been flawed? Or is it more that it’s imperative to all concerned that at least some hockey be played this season in order to salvage not just all-important revenues that the players and owners will divide, but perhaps more importantly to give the fans and sponsors something to think about other than the mess that this lockout has been?

Or will this idea, like the stab at mediation, be just another log on the fire that is the 2012-13 season?

CUSTANCE: At the very least, with this offer and the mediation, the league can say it has attempted to exhaust all avenues of negotiation to get a deal done. I've had it suggested to me that this might simply be an attempt to remove Donald Fehr from the equation and speak directly with players without his presence or filter. But players I've spoken with say he's carrying out their wishes and consistently appear more than satisfied with Fehr's transparency and ability to communicate.

"He talks to a you on a level you understand," one player said. "We've been very trusting in what he says."

So if removing Fehr is their only goal, I'm not sure this accomplishes anything. We'll see.

Let's hope instead this is the olive branch that gives us some good news, because hockey fans definitely deserve it at this point.