Monday, December 3, 2012
Debate: Owners-players meeting will be pivotal
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun
Today, Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun weigh the pros and cons of the NHL-NHLPA owners-players meeting scheduled for Tuesday. Bring it, fellas.
SCOTT BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend. Well, this promises to be an interesting -- dare we say seminal? -- week in the NHL and in the lockout that now approaches the three-month mark. The NHL’s board of governors meets in New York on Wednesday, but first, on Tuesday, a group of NHL owners and select players will meet for a powwow, accepting commissioner Gary Bettman's suggestion he and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr step back after federal mediation fell apart after two days. Stunt? PR move? Or catalyst to a deal? We’ll find out soon enough, but there are lots of questions about whether this will amount to anything. First, a source told ESPN.com on Monday morning that the lineup for the two sides was entirely at the discretion of the individual groups. So it was up to Bettman, et al, to exclude New York Rangers owner James Dolan and include the oft-vilified Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins in the group of six owners. Does Jacobs’ presence destroy any benefit of this kind of gathering before it starts? Still, lots of new faces and voices at the table from the owners’ side, including Ron Burkle of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jeff Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning, both of whom are seen as moderates. And while the top American team in terms of revenues, the Rangers, won’t be represented, the top-earning team in the league, the Toronto Maple Leafs, will be represented by Larry Tanenbaum. So what do you think?
PIERRE LEBRUN: Burkle’s inclusion is the key, in my opinion. Hugely successful in his private businesses, the billionaire has a reputation as a deal-maker. Heck, he was once named "Man of the Year" by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. He negotiated with unions many times in his business career. How could he not be a benefit to this process? Burkle, I’m told, has strongly wanted to get involved of late and I believe he’s going into this meeting with the intent of doing everything he can to close the gap between the sides. And I don’t think Jacobs' presence in the room means a newbie like Burkle is going to take any marching orders from him. So I can only take it as a positive that Burkle, with his impressive track record in his real-life business world, is taking a stab at this. Fresh voices are needed in this impasse, that’s clear and obvious. But it’s not just new voices that are needed, but rather voices that matter, voices that can make the difference. And I think, in Burkle, there’s a real positive here.
BURNSIDE: Things could hardly be worse, no? The two sides have stumbled along for weeks and I think the poisonous air that has existed in the room from the very beginning has been a significant impediment to getting a deal done. I’m not so sure that Jacobs’ presence is a nonfactor. The players can’t stand him, so I'm not sure why he needs to be in the room if this is about bridging a gap that most people believe isn’t that significant. And you’ve already got Murray Edwards from Calgary in the mix and he’s been part of the NHL’s bargaining committee from the get-go. Still, I’m with you, the new voices are imperative for creating some sort of momentum. Another NHL source whom I spoke with this morning said he thinks this can’t hurt. This source pointed to Mark Chipman, the top man with the Winnipeg Jets, as an important presence in the room. It’s interesting Chipman was included as there were reports, vigorously denied by all concerned, about a flare-up between Jacobs and Jets officials at a board of governors meeting. Still, this meeting only works if there is a free flow of ideas about where the two sides are coming from. If it devolves into more finger-pointing and boo-hooing about how the two sides have behaved during this process, then it just amps up the potential for the entire season to go pfffttttt.
LEBRUN: I’ve been saying it for weeks, but the reality is that both sides aren’t actually that far away from a deal. Once both sides move a little on the "make-whole" provision and on player contract rights, the deal is done. The problem is that the growing level of mistrust between the two sides has paralyzed any ability to push this over the final stretch. So hopefully fresh voices in the room will help ease that mistrust and lead to a more constructive discussion. I know some players I spoke with over the weekend had hoped both Jacobs and Edwards would be left behind, but it’s no surprise they remained part of the league’s lineup. Of course, the other part of the intrigue is just who will enter the room for the players. Like Jacobs and Edwards, no doubt there will be some level of continuity with players who have been there for most of the meetings. But certainly there will also be big names in the mix. And it’s no surprise to hear that Sidney Crosby might be there. He’s already taken in a few bargaining sessions. And his presence is important.
"Crosby really should be in there," one NHL team executive told me Monday morning.
BURNSIDE: Crosby has really emerged this fall as a player who understands his place in the pantheon of NHL players as well as the importance of his presence and profile toward maintaining what has been a unified player front in the face of lost paychecks and untold damage done to the game. I still wonder about the logistics of how this will work and whether the unusual setup will allow for the kind of frank exchange between the two sides that will be needed to come up with fresh ideas that could help move the two sides toward a deal. With the board of governors set to meet Wednesday, do you think this puts unnecessary pressure on the two sides to come up with something right away? Here’s hoping that both groups understand the urgency attached to this process. You and I are both of the mind that we could see hockey by the end of the month. I still believe that. But I’ll believe in it a lot more if we get a sense of strong dialogue Tuesday. My fear is that if this doesn’t provide traction right away, the two sides will throw up their hands and walk away. Then what? If that happens, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that allows for a deal to be made. If things do break down, the two sides will have no one to blame but themselves. The players have long complained about not hearing other voices from the ownership group and the owners have questioned Fehr’s motivation in the process. Now the table is set for something different. Here’s hoping they don’t jab each other in the hands with their forks.
LEBRUN: It’s important to understand the framework of Tuesday’s meeting. It’s not as if either side will come armed with a new proposal. That’s not happening; rather, you can expect discussion of the key issues that have continued to separate the two sides.
Honestly, once there’s a breakthrough on the core economics -- "make-whole" and the players’ share -- the rest of the deal's components should fall like dominoes. Once the league gets something it can live with in terms of the core economics, it will finally back down on some of its player-contracting rights demands. I’m sure of that. The league has held firmly to its list of player contracting demands because it hasn’t seen the NHLPA sign off on a "make-whole" solution it can live with yet. But you’re right, if this latest attempt at bridging the gap blows up, I’d be very concerned over what happens next. I have to think decertification talk would ramp up big-time on the players’ side if Tuesday's meeting implodes.
For hockey fans who still care, let’s hope this isn’t yet again a monumental setback, but rather the long-awaited breakthrough that this process has so desperately needed.