SBJ/June 25-July 1, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Countering the negative vibe on labor

Eight years ago, much of the labor talks that led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season played out in public, with frequent media reports only adding to the friction of the negotiations. Gary Bettman insists this summer’s talks with the NHL Players’ Association won’t play out similarly despite the instant news cycles that exist with social media today.

“We don’t intend to negotiate publicly,” the NHL commissioner said last week. “I’m hoping these negotiations are quick, quiet and painless. I’m not looking to go on the campaign trail on this. Frankly, there was a lot made very public about everything related to collective bargaining last time. As you see this time, we’ve been extraordinarily quiet — intentionally so.”

Sure enough, when asked when negotiations will begin with NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr and the union, all Bettman would say is, “We’re working on it.” And when it was suggested to Bettman that perhaps he owed it to his league’s loyal fans to provide some insight into what aspects of the league’s $3.3 billion business need to be fixed, the commissioner disagreed. “The best thing we can present to our fans,” he said, “is them not having to deal with this at all.”

Bettman continues to be perplexed by the high level of pessimism on the labor front in the hockey media. Many columnists have written that the likelihood of starting the regular season on time in early October is slim.

“Since we haven’t even formally exchanged proposals, how does anybody even know what’s on the table?” Bettman said. “I understand that with a new executive director at the union, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and my guess is Don understands that as well. But anything written on the subject is sheer speculation. We’ll have this conversation again in 60 days and we’ll have a better idea on how things stand. For somebody to have a strong opinion clothed as fact at this stage is not real.”

What appears to be real is the development of a solid working relationship with Fehr, who was named NHLPA executive director in December 2010.

“We talk on a regular basis,” Bettman said, in rare remarks on the subject. “We get together on a regular basis. We’re having no trouble communicating and getting along.”

Bettman, however, warned not to read too much into those communications.

“The media, in all sports, tends to personalize these things,” he said. “[Former NHLPA Executive Director] Bob Goodenow and I used to go to games and dinner and play golf. Don and I have been to dinner and lunch and games together. I think people need to take a deep breath and calm down. The only thing that means much is the end result.”

As for reopening discussions on the CBA, despite the peril to the 2012-13 season, Bettman will not apologize. The league served notice to the union last month that it intends to change the current CBA, which expires on Sept. 15.

“The game has grown dramatically, and that’s a plus for all of us,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t some work to be done.”

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