Thursday, January 18, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Time for Gary Bettman, Donald Fehr to walk away from NHL labor talks

They're all a bunch of pinheads. All of them. Everyone associated with the NHL, that is.

Owners. Players. League executives. Union officials. The whole lot. Heck, at this point, even the Zamboni drivers are off our Christmas list.

These blockheads are about to take a sport that barely registers in this country anyway, pack it into a crate and chuck it over a cliff. For the first time since this NHL lockout started 59 days ago, it really does feel like the season is in jeopardy.

Until now, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wagged his finger, it seemed like a negotiation ploy. When union boss Donald Fehr pounded his fist, it seemed like a publicity stunt. When anyone spoke out about the labor mess or games were canceled, it felt like more posturing meant to rattle the other side.

But not now. This feels real. This feels scary.

"I don't see a path to an agreement here," Fehr said over the weekend.

"I don't know where we go from here," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

I don't believe much that comes out of the mouths of those two, but I believe that. Here's a look at what has happened, what is happening and what will happen next.

What has happened

After months of hemming and hawing, the union and the owners finally seemed on the path to a settlement when they met most of last week. But not only wasn't a deal reached, the two sides couldn't even agree on how much progress was made.

"You think there's traction,'' Lightning forward Marty St. Louis said, "and all of a sudden it's gone.''

Some suggested the talks went well. Most suggested they did not. One report said Friday's session ended with the sides snapping at one another and no closer to a deal than when this whole thing started.

Here's part of the problem: both sides act like we care, as if their little news conferences and emails and leaked memos sway our opinion and put pressure on the other guy. They need to realize that we don't care who is right or wrong. We don't care who wins or loses. Most don't understand or even care to learn what the differences are.

We don't give a hoot about revenue sharing or salary caps or whether or not the players are "made whole.'' We don't care about free agency or rookie pay scales.

We care about two things: when will a deal be struck and when will the season start?

What is happening now?

In a word: nothing.

The sides barely spoke Sunday and did not talk formally Monday because Hockey Hall of Fame inductions. Ironic, eh? On a day when hockey celebrates some of its greatest players, a superstar such as St. Louis is thinking about heading off to Europe because his league is shut down.

"I'm caught in between,'' St. Louis said. "I want to go, but I feel, geez, it might be close. But, nope, two days later, nope, we're far. … It's tough.''

What will happen next?

If you look back at the history of labor talks, there's often a pattern. A long silence is interrupted by furious talks. Momentum is gained. A deal appears close. Then there's a blowup and the sides storm away from the table. Finally, they reconvene to strike a deal at the last minute.

Well, we're just about at the last minute. A deal must be struck soon to salvage a season.

"I think there's a process that has to be done and you try not to read too much into one meeting,'' Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "We were there and we were talking, but it is frustrating. We want to play. We want to get this done. We want a deal that's fair for everybody.''

But getting there appears improbable because Bettman and Fehr have their enormous egos in the way. They don't care about the other side. They don't care about sponsors. They don't about networks. And they care even less about fans, who are about to go from angry to apathetic, if they're not there already.

Final thought

The only way this thing gets done is if Bettman and Fehr walk away, at least for now. There's too much animosity. Neither man trusts the other. Both are more concerned with their reputations than what is best for hockey.

The NFL hasn't lost a game to a labor dispute in the past 20 years. The NBA has lost 504.

Meantime, Major League Baseball has lost 938 games in addition to the 1994 postseason — all while Fehr was running the MLB players' union. And, no sport has lost more games over the past 20 years than the NHL — an incredible 1,698, all on Bettman's watch.

How can we trust that the two men half responsible for the biggest labor messes in North American sports over the past two decades are the right negotiators to hammer out this deal?

Kick them out of the room. Lock the doors. Put their second-in-commands in charge of the talks. It's our only hope.

Until then, don't bug us until you have a deal or cancel the season. Frankly, we don't care which.

Times staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report.

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