Is Their Method Rhetorical Madness?

As sports labor work stoppages go, this NHL lockout has got to be one of the most frustrating ones. When you break down the numbers, the NHL and NHLPA are frustratingly close to meeting in the middle — which is why the continued stalemate is causing millions of fans, sponsors, and employees to shake their head.

The problem is that rhetoric from both sides is tainting perception. If you looked strictly at a timeline of proposals and concessions, a lot of things would look like logical steps towards a mid-November solution, one that preserves the majority of the season and the Winter Classic. From fans and business sponsors, that would restore the season just when casual fans would normally be jumping on the bandwagon — NHL attendances are generally softest in October and November.

NHL rhetoric would have you believe that there is NO POSSIBLE WAY THEY COULD DO ANYTHING LESS than what they offered ... despite the fact that losing games post-November would eliminate the prime selling season for most teams, as well as anger major partners and sponsors — particularly NBC.

NHLPA rhetoric would have you believe that there is NO POSSIBLE WAY THEY COULD DO ANYTHING DIFFERENT than their proposal ... despite the fact that the players would lose far, far more money by sitting out an entire season compared to dropping one or two percentage points in hockey-related revenue this season.

So there's a logical tipping point and it zeroes in on mid-November. That preserves the Winter Classic (though rumors have it that the outdoor game will be threatened publicly by the end of the week) and the majority of the season when hockey tends to thrive at the box office and among local fan interest.

That then comes down to the question of how much of the rhetoric is just that and how much is true stubbornness. While it makes sense that both Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr will say anything to instill fear in the other side — fear that will theoretically cause further concessions before the true deadline, there's also the possibility that the two leaders and their constituents are so dug into their position that they'll sacrifice sensibility for pride.

Following the canceling of November's NHL calendar, players expressed outrage, which hasn't been particularly new, especially in the age of Twitter. However, as the clock ticks towards the end of October, some players have publicly grumbled about how the time has come to just sit down and do the right thing. You can bet some owners are feeling this way too; the league's gag order prevents this from being public while the 700+ players are free to say whatever they want — and they don't have decades of business experience to help hide their emotions. While this probably won't lead to an all-out PA mutiny such as the one that took place in 2005 against former PA head Bob Goodenow, it will probably lead to a greater urgency from the player's side to get back to the bargaining table.

Donald Fehr's goal is to get the best possible deal while maintaining calm and stability for his constituents. His response to these public fears is probably a private conversation reminding worried players that this is all part of the way the CBA game is played.

Gary Bettman must have received some urgent discussions from some markets — the ones that have made great strides in recent years (Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators) or are printing money hand over fist (New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs). And just like Fehr, Bettman probably has a private conversation going over numbers and negotiating strategy.

In short, it seems like just about each step both the PA and the league have taken can almost mirror each other. In the end, representatives on both sides have acknowledged that a deal is within reach, and perhaps that's why they've both made similar public and private statements about negotiations. The gap itself is relatively small and one has to think that once both sides agreed to break from their hard-line stances, a deal can come together pretty quickly — especially because many non-financial issues have been resolved already.

If you're looking at this from a long-term business perspective and acknowledge, then the strategy from both sides seems to be this: hold the course until you reach the deadline for the most important revenue-generating months of the season, then quickly build a bridge and get going. By stripping out emotions and rhetoric, one can look at the breadcrumbs leading to this path and it all makes sense — and that, ultimately, means a resolution some time in the month of November (and you have to think that Detroit's Mike Ilitch will have some sway based on his Board Of Governors standing and the weight behind the Detroit-based Winter Classic).

That's if you're looking at things from a rational business perspective with the understanding that rhetoric is just that. But if the rhetoric goes deeper, if it represents a true emotional stubbornness on the sides of both leaders, we're in for a deep freeze. Let's hope that the businessmen remember that this is a business, not a contest.

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