Gary Machiavelli

Jonathan Willis
November 30 2012 11:22AM

With the failure of mediation, the NHL has seemingly gone for a ‘Hail Mary’ move: asking for a direct meeting between owners and players without the presence of the leadership of either side. What should we make of this request?

First, the offer clearly favours the league over the union. There’s a temptation here to dismiss the players as jocks who don’t understand the finances of the game, but that would be unfair. What seems undeniable, however, is that in a meeting without labour lawyers the owners – older and with a long track record in business – as a group likely have a sizable advantage over the players – younger, and without the same level of success or experience in business. This is a proposal that plays to the NHL’s strengths and the union’s weaknesses.

Second, the offer is likely made with the belief that the players should accept the NHL’s point of view, minus complicating factors. It’s been clear for some time now that the league’s ownership believes that Donald Fehr is misrepresenting it’s message to players. That seems unlikely, given that player representatives have been deeply involved in the meetings, but that’s the belief. Further, Gary Bettman inspires deep antipathy among players – the NHL likely further believes that the same message from a less distrusted spokesman will carry more weight.

This is not a negotiating strategy – really it’s an end-run around Fehr and a move that has the bonus of shifting the message from Bettman to more trusted spokespeople.

Third, if the NHLPA accepts there is at least some possibility that this helps move negotiations. A number of things might come out of such a meeting. The players, some of whom clearly believe there are internal divisions among ownership, may be influenced if a group of owners comes out and says the same things in a private meeting that Bettman’s been saying publicly. On the other hand, the owners may come to the realization that the chief negotiators among the players share Fehr’s point of view.

The bottom line is that this is a risky move for either side, but a move where the split of risk and reward clearly favours the NHL. It’s also a move that helps the NHL almost regardless of the outcome. That’s why they proposed it. If Fehr shot it down immediately, that would play to their message that he’s misleading the players. If the executive board and negotiating committee of the NHLPA opted to accept the meeting, the league could rightly place more confidence in its owners than the players could in their delegates. Finally, if the NHLPA does the most sensible thing and votes down the concept, the league simply gets to look like they’re trying to be creative while the players’ association is being intransigent. Representatives can also darkly hint that only Fehr’s influence swayed the vote, playing into the league’s whisper campaign against the NHLPA executive director.

Superficially, the NHL offer looks like an act of desperation, a creative attempt to solve the impasse in negotiations. In reality, it’s a carefully considered, almost Machiavellian move where the vast majority of outcomes favour the league, regardless of how the union handles it. It was a nice play by Gary Bettman.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.