"Thank you, NHL. I rarely have the opportunity to seem this friendly and appealing."

…is what Michael Grange should have called his terrific Sportsnet article from yesterday (SPOILER ALERT: Cold water). If only because A) this whole thing’s about money, B) wuns are punderful, and 3) it’s probably what Bettman and his negotiating team screamed in frustration when Fehr didn’t fall into the baited mudslinging trap that was the NHL’s first CBA proposal.

Grange almost gets there. He goes as far as referring to the Trojan horse myth when describing the NHLPA’s counter proposal, insinuating that it’s far more nefariously designed and player-favourable than it may seem from the limited details we’ve received. And that despite the proposal appearing level-headed and good faith-y, it will amount to little more than a fleeting gasp of fan relief in these discussions if only because it so sharply contrasted the NHL’s laughable initial offer by being, y’know, slightly realistic.

Let’s be clear. The purpose of these CBA talks is not really to establish a just or equitable system of league economics that serves all parties to their maximum interest. The objective for both sides is more like, “There’s a giant pile of inevitable money sitting on the table, grab as much of it as you can before this PR-devastating (and longterm-ly irrelevant) bomb detonates.”

That’s my poetic way of setting the stage for what we’ll see in the coming weeks. The NHLPA’s counter proposal was met with a positive reaction from fans. Even Bettman couldn’t help but pay it a slightly backhanded compliment. I’ve highlighted the Grange piece because he does a far better job with his fourth paragraph summarizing the players’ strategic approach than I’ve seen written anywhere else:

The players — confronted with the owners— sledgehammer of an offer a month ago, which calls for them to give up 24 per cent of their salaries and a large swath of contract rights — did the smart thing when confronted by a bully. They backed away, stayed calm and are instead trying to out-manouver the big mean kid with brains rather than an empty show of force.

That’s literally it. Fehr delivered a counter proposal that was almost ‘anti-Fehr’ in its friendly rhetoric, and it was the best possible move he could have made. The NHL owners don’t currently have any good sentiment to stand on – and we are, surprisingly and for the first time, actually seeing some media and fans make a distinction between the owners and their mere mouthpiece in Bettman. It’s as if they were anticipating a classic, hardline Fehr response to their first offer. Sort of like, “If we say something ridiculous, he’ll say something more ridiculous, and then people will forget about ours and when the negotiations really begin, we’ll have public sentiment on our side as leverage.”


Instead, the NHLPA and Fehr’s first volley found the fine line between demanding and conceding: compromise (or, at least, a cloak of it). The key to any negotiation is leverage, and at this early stage of not-yet-meaningful discussion, leverage building for either side is a prime focus. Combining their perfect response of a proposal with an impressive showing of player solidarity (Crosby and Ovechkin quite literally flanking Fehr during the delivery, anyone?) has round one firmly and definitively going to the NHLPA.

But as Grange reminds us, that success is temporary and largely rhetorical. And when it comes to early rhetoric, Fehr is definitively making a positive leverage-building impression. Beyond statistics, what sort of leverage is Fehr going for? Public sentiment. What does public sentiment really mean? Fan empathy. What’s the fans’ biggest fear? A lockout. And what’s the fans’ largest annoyance with this whole process? The perpetual lockouts under the Bettman tenure.

So what does the Donald do about that? Hit the empathy/solidarity nail on the head. Grange: Fehr described [the proposal] Tuesday as the players— effort to stabilize the league and rescue it from a perpetual cycle of labour unrest — a work stoppage in September would be the fourth in 20 years.

As in, “policing this shouldn’t be our job, but we’re going to make the sacrifice and do it for the fans. Because the league obviously won’t. And we’re their friend. And we’re Batman.” ”

The NHLPA response was a contained win if only for the way it painted the debate, and less so than for what it actually contributed to it. Fehr hasn’t even started to negotiate yet. He’s doing what a good negotiator does first: position the conversation. And he’s basically positioned it as:

GARY BETTMAN: “The last CBA we basically forced on you guys doesn’t work for us anymore. We want more money. Again. Even though we’re making untold sums that are astronomical compared to what we were making before. Give us some of your share.”

DONALD FEHR: “Uh, no. How about we’re all millionaires, and we (elbows fan buddies in the ribs) don’t want a lockout, and we’ll pay you a half a billion dollars over the next few years to keep this thing moving.”

Seems simple. And for a spectator, it’s intriguing stuff and great musing-fodder. But that doesn’t make it true.

We know it’s not that simple. We know Donald Fehr is not that righteous, nor does he personally, probably, give one iota of a damn about whether or not there’s actually hockey being played next October. Fehr’s ultimate metric of success in his job will be how favourable a new CBA is for the players, and he will do what’s necessary (and probably unpleasant) to achieve that objective. Enjoy feeling like we’re on his side now, because as Grange points out, we will may soon feel animosity for everyone in the process. On Wednesday afternoon, Fehr told reporters players have been advised to “prepare for the worst case scenario,” and he wasn’t talking about inoperable brain cancer.

And let’s not underestimate how little public sentiment actually matters in this whole thing. This league cancelled a season not all that long ago, and would dismissively do it again if it meant extra coins in the ownership coffers down the road. No one would like the lost revenue from a missed season, but these aren’t exactly individuals who’ve bet their childrens’ college tuition on that small market hockey team they just bought. The dollars will outweigh the dissidents when it comes time for the hard decisions to be made – the dissidents, in this case, being the fans.

Thursday morning links!

Here’s another link to the Grange piece, in case you still want to read it and don’t feel like scrolling up.

-Here’s the entire video of Fehr’s post-meeting media scrum from Wednesday. It seems like every time I see Fehr recently, he’s not wearing a tie. I’m starting to think he has the same publicist as Brian Burke. Or that dressing like an Oreo is some intimidating negotiation tactic I’m not aware of.

-Wayne Simmonds has signed a 6-year extension with the Philadelphia Flyers at roughly $4 million per season. That seems high. It also seems like it’s going work out very well for them.

At The Leafs Nation, Cam Charron considers which first line centre options have even been realistically available to acquire during Burke’s tenure. I never thought I’d get tired of this discussion, but holy hell, I am actually tired of this discussion.

-Via PPP but originating on Twitter, the NHL-CHL transfer agreement actually expired in July. I have no idea what this means in terms of legalities and limitations on player movement, but, uh, if there’s a lockout can we send Kadri back to dominate with the Knights?

-Our own Anthony Petrielli has posted some thoughts on the Canada/Russia Challenge series: not here, but over here. Gotcha.