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Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Will different dynamics save season?

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman
Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman are creating a different kind of dynamic for the CBA talks.
Oh, it's different, all right.

Even with a lockout of NHL players looming, the differences between this set of negotiations and the dynamics that surround them are stark when compared with negotiations of the past.

But are they enough to save a hockey season?

Here's a look at what's going on as the NHL's owners and players gather in New York with a lockout officially set to begin at 11:59 p.m. ET Saturday:

Baggage has been checked

First, no one disputes how cordial the talks have been (when they've actually been talking). Sure, there were a few snipes in recent days, with deputy commissioner Bill Daly suggesting the NHLPA's foray into provincial labor laws in Alberta and Quebec were "a joke" and that, in those matters, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr didn't know what he was talking about. But, really, the two sides have played relatively nice publicly, and reportedly at the table as well.

But does that mean anything in the final accounting?

We believe it must be, given that the personal acrimony between former union head Bob Goodenow and commissioner Gary Bettman, et al., seemed to taint any possibility of an early resolution to the 2004-05 lockout. The current talks are more "aboveboard," a player told ESPN.com.

"You don't get the emotional part of it. There's not the baggage of years of dealing with each other," he said.

But another source on the players' side of the fence said simply, "I don't think it means anything."

Regardless, the key factor in the change in tone is clear: the absence of Goodenow and the appearance of Fehr, the longtime baseball union head who is leading his first set of negotiations on behalf of the NHLPA.

The talks under Fehr's watch have been "much more professional at the table, way more cordial, way more professional. Bob had them all wired up," one league source said.

Fehr "takes the ego out of it. To be honest with you, it's refreshing," another league source added.

Not only does Fehr's presence change the dynamic in terms of tone, it changes how the NHL has approached the negotiations in the short term and, if the lockout goes into the fall, the long term.

Although the players didn't like the offer, the owners' second proposal was a move off their first. Further, ownership acknowledged elements of the players' first proposal as being helpful. Finding salient points in each other's proposals is, obviously, key to finding some sort of middle ground, and the two sides have at least that going for them. Beyond the personalities -- and those are huge factors, given the history of NHL-NHLPA negotiations -- Fehr brings an ability to quickly and intelligently analyze information, whether it's in the form of league proposals or discussions at the table.

"I think his presence is critical here," one player source said.

If there is reason to believe Bettman and Fehr ultimately can find the middle ground, it's that both have long, long histories. This isn't their first rodeo. Both have achieved much, both have earned their stripes with resounding successes at the bargaining table. As someone close to Fehr said, he doesn't have to prove anything. Neither does Bettman.

"He's such a pro. He's such a pro," one frequent critic of Bettman acknowledged.

If you're an optimist, having two seasoned leaders at the table should at some point open the door to a resolution, as opposed to having someone who feels the need to make a point, or score points with his constituents.

Player unity is better

Lots have been written and said about the players' will this time around. Of course, it's easy to be willful when you haven't actually had to give up anything -- as in a paycheck. But if there is a different mindset this time around, credit Fehr for making it so. His rearranging of the structure of the negotiating process from the players' side has established a completely different framework.

No longer is there an executive committee made up of a small group of players attending bargaining sessions and making decisions, but a much broader-based structure. Before an estimated 300 players were set to descend on New York Wednesday and Thursday for a final briefing before a lockout, 70 or so players had taken an active role in various discussions with the owners.

From the ownership side, the broad-based, inclusive approach allowed them to hear from a variety of perspectives within the players' union and build relationships with a wider range of players moving forward.

Does opening up the process make it more difficult to reach a consensus when it gets down to brass tacks? Time will tell on that one, but one player told ESPN.com, there's "no one else I'd rather have as director, I can say that."

The opening up of the process also might be a significant factor when it comes to maintaining player unity. With so many players having had a stake in the process, it will be harder for a smaller group to hijack it and, in theory, splinter the player group, as was the case last time. At least that's the theory.

As for having one-third to one-half of the membership in one place -- including top players Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin -- as the clock ticks down, well, it beats the alternative. Eight years ago, the lockout came about 14 hours after the final game of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. The players, even the victorious Canadians, were in a somber mood, but it wasn't until after Bettman locked out the players that we saw a public display of unity among them, unity that in the end proved to be paper-thin as factions at various points in the negotiations attempted to railroad the process as the season slipped away.

This time? Hard to say, but the gathering at least suggests to the owners that they can't assume the players lack the will to go the distance.

Steve Fehr brings consistency

Speaking of getting pen to paper, there are questions about the logistics of who might actually sit down and draft a final product. In general, that's not Bettman's job, and historically Fehr hasn't been the guy working out the fine details of a deal.

Eight years ago, it was Daly and Ted Saskin, who at the time was Goodenow's right-hand man. Saskin later would replace Goodenow, then resign in disgrace after allegedly hacking into players' email accounts, but there is no disputing his role in ending the previous lockout. Saskin and Daly met in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in February 2005, in a last-ditch effort to save the 2004-05 season. In the end, he and Daly pounded out the final details of the deal under which the NHL played for the past seven seasons.

Having the kind of relationship that allows for quiet chats or coffee or dinner seems crucial. One longtime NHL labor observer said it is important to be able to have frank discussions if traction is to be achieved. That implies that Daly and Steve Fehr, Donald's brother and right-hand man, would need to forge that kind of relationship. Last week, when the two sides "recessed," the two went to dinner, sparking a series of informal meetings.

Speaking of Steve Fehr, the longtime special counsel to the baseball players' union is seen as a key fixture in this process. He has worked with his brother for years, and reports from baseball suggest his presence was key to that sport's negotiations. And it's worth noting the last time baseball stopped its game for a labor dispute was more than two decades ago.

"Steve's with Donald all the time," one source said.

It's fair to say that in 2005, Saskin and Goodenow had diverged on how to resolve the lockout. That's not going to happen with the Fehr brothers. When Daly sits down to chat with Steve Fehr, he knows he's hearing the same language Donald Fehr would speak. Likewise, Steve Fehr can rest assured that Daly and Bettman are in lockstep.

Barack Obama, Bruins
Jeremy Jacobs is considered the most powerful owner.

The rest of the picture

If there is one owner who appears to have a disproportionate amount of sway within the ownership group -- and hence the bargaining process -- it's Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who is the head of the NHL's board of governors. He is seen as a hard-liner who would like to see the players' share of the revenue pie reduced significantly from the 50-50 that many believe is a target for much of the ownership side.

"I can't tell you how powerful he is," one source from the players' side told ESPN.com.

Jacobs, for all of his hawkishness, has little sense of irony, though, as he OK'd a massive, six-year, $34.5 million deal for young star Tyler Seguin a few days after signing Brad Marchand to a four-year deal worth $18 million. Did Jacobs have his fingers crossed behind his back when those deals came across his desk, or is he just assuming he and the rest of the owners will gouge back a good portion of that contract when all is said and done?

Craig Leipold, another owner who spent lavishly this summer on his Minnesota Wild roster while bargaining that the system needs to be reworked, also has been part of the bargaining process. Jim Rutherford, a minority owner and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes and is among the most respected men on the management/ownership side of the equation, and Toronto president and GM Brian Burke also have been active, especially when it comes to crafting some of the issues outside the core economic elements. On the players' side, former player Mathieu Schneider has been involved in discussions about player issues such as health and safety. Ev Ehrlich is a longtime economist who has contributed to discussions on behalf of the baseball players working with Donald Fehr, and he'll be providing analysis and suggestions on revenue sharing for the NHLPA.

Richard Rodier, who became a household name in hockey circles as Jim Balsillie's counsel during the BlackBerry developer's failed bid to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins, Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators, has been involved in examining the teams' financial documents.