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Coffee is for closers, and other thoughts

By Tom

So there I was last week, watching the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement talks melt down once again.  Mrs. DBJ was watching me as I stared, aghast, at the Twitter feed telling me how NHL Players Association executive Don Fehr said everything was hunky-dory…and then wasn’t.  And how NHL commissioner Gary Bettman could barely keep his composure as he tried to explain what had happened to the once-productive week of negotiations.

Not the biggest hockey fan (and neither is she the most attentive to matters of hockey, probably as a self-defense mechanism), Mrs. DBJ asked me to explain the dynamic.  I explained how Bettman has orchestrated two other lockouts to get his owners what they wanted, and how he was doing it again.  I explained how Fehr was the zen-master of labor negotiations, flipping the labor-management dynamic in baseball from one of the most contentious to the one of the best partnerships in sports…and how he was trying to do it again, this time with hockey.

For those who aren’t aware, Mrs. DBJ is a business negotiator on a pretty steep scale.  She’s never had to split a $3 billion pie like the NHL and the NHLPA are trying to do, but she’s handled deals with more zeroes than I’ll ever see.  So she speaks with authority in my book.  Plus, she’s my wife…so she always speaks with authority.

After hearing my explanation, she looked at me, quizzically, and said something to the extent of, “They might consider themselves fantastic at what they do, but they haven’t made a deal.  It’s easy to stake out grand positions, but the talent is in getting what you want and still getting the deal done.”

That’s when it hit me.  In essence, it’s “Glen Garry Glen Ross” all over again.  Coffee is for closers.

Gary Bettman, thus far, has failed to get a CBA that works for him and puts players on the ice.  Same for Don Fehr.  Maybe media and fans alike should stop venerating either as master manipulators and look at both as what they are right now – at this point in time in this negotiation process:  They both are failures, for we still have no NHL hockey.

Those two don’t deserve the coffee that they’re surely drinking.  Maybe I’ll change my opinion later, but that will take an actual agreement and some professional athletes skating on the ice.

I’ll be the first to admit, I was thinking for a long while there that an “I was SO wrong” post was coming after I had my say on the thought of trying to negotiate a deal of this magnitude without the two main negotiators in the room.  For the life of me, I could not understand how we could see an agreement happen without the actual people who put these deals together.  (At the time of the post, I was unaware that the NHL’s number two man, Bill Daly, and the NHLPA’s number two, Steve Fehr, were to be in the room throughout.)

I guess the players agreed with me, as they eventually demanded that Don Fehr be allowed back into the room.  Here’s what the Sabres’ Ryan Miller had to say:

“I wanted more than anything to make a deal but we are not professional negotiators. We as players didn’t have the experience or authority to make a final deal.”

The Blues’ David Backes said much the same:

“Don and (assistant director Steve Fehr), they are the people we chose to represent us. We’re not well-educated businessmen; we’re hockey players. We expressed our views, had some phenomenal discussions with the owners. But we’re not billion-dollar businessmen that cut deals in boardrooms all the time. That’s why we’ve hired Don Fehr.”

So that’s that.  Despite the owners’ best efforts, the players weren’t going to close out the negotiations without their man (men?) in the room.  Which is their right.

The question then arises: Was the intensive negotiating of the past week doomed to fail from the outset because of the non-Bettman/Fehr negotiating format?

If you’re stuck in the “What in the world happened” state since the @NHLPodium became a short-lived hockey icon, perhaps you might want to check out these pieces:

- “Why the sudden turn in NHL CBA talks?” – Written at the peak of optimism that a deal was going to get done

- “Lockout theater: CBA talks between NHL and NHLPA fall apart in dramatic fashion” - Perhaps the definitive (to me) summary of what went down

- “An inside look at how Lemieux, Pens tried to save NHL season” – Nice try, but they failed.  No coffee for you, Mario.  (So why are they leaking out all this self-congratulatory scoop?)

- “Brunt on lockout: 30 minutes of madness” – How Don Fehr drove Gary Bettman nuts

- “NHL labor dispute is about nothing more than Jacobs vs. Fehr” – Wait,  it’s not Bettman vs. Fehr?

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