Not one dear reader should be surprised if this lengthy stretch of negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA breaks off either Friday or at some point this weekend.
After three days and nearly 20 hours of face-to-face sessions, there remains a reality that cannot be ignored:
Not one person associated with the NHL is certain the NHLPA really wants to do a deal at the present moment.
This is not to suggest that anybody within the league believes the union does not want to do a deal, but rather to indicate that nobody within the NHL, not even commissioner Gary Bettman or deputy Bill Daly, has a direct read on NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr.
This is also not to suggest the NHL’s patience is wearing thin with Fehr and, by association, the union. Bettman and Daly, eight years removed from a nastier labor struggle, know better than anybody within the NHL that a negotiation for a new CBA is a process with twists, turns, silence, noise and inevitable moments of doom and gloom.
Still, it is hard for any neutral observer to envision how the NHL and NHLPA will find labor peace as long as there is this lack of clarity with regards to Fehr.
Of course, this should work to the players’ advantage, because there is no chance the NHL will try to go around Fehr or union leadership to strike a labor agreement.
This fairly means Fehr and the players hold the ace card in this game.
This is not to suggest that Fehr is a bad guy for remaining somewhat of a mystery to his opponents during this labor dispute. He was hired in 2010 for a specific reason, and he has proven an unquestioned success in that regard.
Never before has the NHLPA been so well-structured, well-informed, and, well, imposing to the league. Fehr has stayed on message and managed to coax concessions from the NHL on a routine basis. That last part is especially comforting to players who believe the NHL has only conceded from an original offer that only asked for union concessions anyway.
Fehr is doing his job, and he is proving every bit as masterful as anybody could expect from the man who turned the baseball union into arguably the strongest in the world.
He wants changes to the owners’ revenue sharing, and with every day there is an increased feeling within hockey circles that he will get that key win for the union.
Indeed, a 50/50 revenue split between players and owners is inevitable. So, too, is the honoring of current contracts.
Revenue-sharing changes, however, were only going to be won by the union if players were led – and galvanized by – a seasoned, shrewd and super smart game-changer.
Fehr is season, shrewd, and super smart.
He has been a game-changer.
But so is a guy like, oh, Sidney Crosby, who jumped at the last minute to attend a Tuesday meeting because wanted to hear words directly from Bettman.
Crosby said Thursday it was good to hear NHL officials talking about their points, that previously players at group meetings had only pieces of paper of which to educate themselves.
Most striking, Crosby also said there appeared to be no personal animosity between Bettman and Fehr – two reputable giants in the history of sports labor negotiations – and that Bettman seemed grounded when detailing the NHL’s stance.
Now, Crosby is not at all breaking from the union ranks. Far from it, actually; he acknowledged, as of Thursday morning, that the best development from this week had been that the sides were still talking.
Overall, though, it is hard to hear from Crosby these days and not sense that a part of him believes he will be donning a Penguins sweater by December.
He is not alone among teammates.
Matt Cooke has stuck by his prediction that games will return by Thanksgiving. Marc-Andre Fleury said he has returned to Pittsburgh because he wants to be ready to speak with Penguins coaches the minute this lockout is called.
Heck, Joe Vitale said he has started following local members of the media on Twitter because he doesn’t want to be the last to know when the NHL and NHL have hugged it out.
Either these players know something those among the unwashed media don’t, or they just cannot believe this lockout will end like the last one, with a canceled season.
How are these guys going to feel if there is no deal soon, and there is an unlikelihood of NHL games in December?
As Fleury said Thursday, “They (owners) want games and we want to play – everybody has that in common, especially right now.”