2012 NHL Lockout: I Think the NHL Season will be Canceled

Bruce Bennett

I have jumped around a lot on the topic, but I think the league is in the end-game process of killing the remaining hope of NHL hockey this season.

The NHL played their last big card in negotiations on Friday when information was "leaked" to friendly media sources about the league's belief that Don Fehr was misleading the Players' Union. Today, news is that both sides met for under an hour on contracting issues, got nowhere, and have no immediate plans to meet again.

What follows is merely opinion and speculation. I could be wrong and I very much hope I am.

I think the 2012-13 NHL season is all but completely dead. The latest strategy play by the NHL is one that is going to take time and media pressure to cultivate and I don't believe they're particularly close to their goal... so I see the next meaningful news to come out is going to be the cancellation of the remainder of the NHL schedule. I believe there's going to be nearly-daily updates, as the NHL's strategy lawyers will focus on masterfully moving issues around and throwing a litany of distractions towards the public to keep up the illusion that they're actually trying to accomplish something, but as of right now, I think the NHL's entire plan is to waste time.

Let's face it, there's not a single reputable source from anywhere but the NHL that Donald Fehr is misleading his constituency, and the NHL is the one entity with the biggest reason to want people to believe that's true. The players don't believe it, many from the press don't believe it, and a lot of fans don't believe it (although after reading through some Yahoo comments last night, I'm a bit saddened by the number of vocal fans who bought that line on its face).

But you don't convince people by telling them; you simply plant an idea and wait for it to grow. The instant critical thought about the players not believing it is "because Fehr's doing such a GOOD job of misleading them!" - They wouldn't know if he was doing it, only Fehr knows, and Fehr is the "outsider" here. This leads to thinking about how a player would know if Fehr weren't telling the entire truth. The creative brain can take over from there and as soon as the part of the brain (activated by that fear) picks up on anything that reasonably looks like evidence to support that fear, the idea is set and it is now native.

From all reports, Fehr has done a fantastic job of heading this off the only way you can: by being completely open, respectful, and responsive. I have no doubt this is going to be his plan going forward.

But that's a lot of players to keep completely informed and trusting, especially when the NHL has gotten so good at leaking things which press and fans alike love to jump on as fantastic concessions which have consistently turned out to be more hollow than substantive in practice. What's more is that every bit the NHL comes closer to the player looks more like a big concession because it's anchored by the league's first set of demands, a completely insulting and unreasonable offer which was likely made for this very reason.

Even to people aware of the anchor bias, it can be difficult to overcome the appearance that the league has "softened" markedly while still staunchly demanding the players accept significantly less money and individual negotiating leverage than the last CBA, a deal which serves as a real-world anchor and that the league has never fully explained how it was untenable to the point of needing to be completely overhauled in such a manner.

So as time passes, it blurs the edges of the NHL's stark anchoring offer and it gives time for doubt to flourish into full-out distrust. The NHL has 29 people to convince to buy into a plan whose ultimate amortization goal is less than 10 years (or significantly less than 29 people, thanks to the league's constitution). The NHLPA has to keep a majority of 700+ players convinced that they're hurting themselves in the face of an enemy who is using every available psychological trick to convince them that they're not the "bad guy."

Time is on the NHL's side here, but they can't afford to simply wait, refuse to meet, and let that time tick away. They have to look like every bit the reasonable, willing negotiating partner they're counting on the NHLPA to eventually believe they are in comparison to a "baseball guy" with "no real interest" in the game of hockey.

Honestly, I can't say if the tactic will work in the long run. If it doesn't work, I fear the follow-up solution to that is a series of intense and bitter legal battles (tempered by hope of a break in league leadership and/or a willingness to use arbitration). All I know is that logic tells me it's more of a long-run strategy than I'd hope the league would be using at this point. I don't see a reason in calling the Union head's integrity into question and then making concessions in short order. The NHL can't possibly have thought that dropping such a grenade would pay off immediately.

So what should the NHLPA do if they want the most-fair deal they can possibly get? I think their only remaining big card in the face of the clock ticking against them and the financial weight of not playing pressing down on them is to begin aggressively demanding arbitration. The league is eventually going to convince a majority of fans that what they want is NHL hockey with our without the current NHLPA and they're eventually going to convince a number of players to create cracks in Union leadership (before the Board of Governors shows those same cracks).

With an arbitrator, PR tricks about who is and isn't making concessions don't matter and they're not effective. With collective bargaining, you don't have to argue for a basis of "fairness", you just have to convince people that it's what you're doing relatively. The only remaining way for the players to "win" to any possible degree is to get a deal which can at least be viewed as fair. The only way it appears they're going to do that is with a third party deciding what fits the definition.

The league doesn't have to agree to it, but if the NHLPA is going to have a chance at a favorable decision in what would be an ugly legal battle, this has to be the first step.

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