Trust is a Media/Fan Issue

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Dec. 7) – During his emotion-charged gathering with reporters in New York on Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman fielded only one repeat question: Is a lack of trust between owners and players hampering the negotiating process?

Bettman was brusque and unequivocal in his reply, insisting that trust bore no weight on collective bargaining. Given his unsettled demeanor, many were likely incredulous. I was not.

Though it is foolish to completely discredit the build-up of animosity in labor dialogue, it is not a governing factor. Human beings are involved and our species does tend to become agitated. But, these are big boys we’re talking about, markedly experienced in high-level negotiation. In such a matter of peripheral interest as the current hockey quarrel, emotion can escalate to a fever-pitch. It certainly did in the final hour of media engagement on Thursday. Remember, this is hardly a covert operation; external masses clamor to be kept “in the loop” – as they do whenever a public trust or essential service cedes to labor intervention. It is therefore vital to distinguish between commotion and the bargaining mechanism.

In the hockey tumult, distrust appears to be more prevalent among observers. Given the repeated nature of work-stoppage in the Bettman regime, hockey fans are losing confidence the game can be governed efficiently. Media has adopted a cynical posture – understandable particularly among those that covered the labor cataclysm of 2005, when hockey became the first, and only, sport to obliterate an entire season.

Such misgiving, however, leads one to rationalize comportment. Consequently, Bettman was “performing” on Thursday in his 26-minute encounter with cameras, microphones, note-pads and a national TV audience here in Canada. Under no circumstance could the NHL’s grand poo-bah have been acting genuinely. Bettman’s opponent, Donald Fehr, is a cagey, beguiling presence – overwhelmed by agenda; scarred by his many years of upheaval in Major League Baseball. It’s no wonder fans are losing a grip. Integrity and candor have been eliminated as possibilities.

Look, I’m not denying the existence of a game within the game. As mentioned, labor discord does involve an element of “spin” and is apparently critical in conveying a “message” to the other side. But, resolution of this matter – as in all-such dissent – is the property of give-and-take behind closed doors.

GARY BETTMAN SPEAKS WITH REPORTERS ON THURSDAY IN NEW YORK, WITH DEPUTY COMMISSIONER BILL DALY AT HIS SIDE.

Even in the most fierce negotiation, there has to be a component of trust among those on the outside. Logic alone would indicate that neither Bettman nor Fehr craves a catastrophic impasse; each side is losing incalculable currency every day of the lockout. Both leaders have come to agreement: Bettman midway through the 1994-95 NHL season; Fehr on a trio of occasions during his 26-year term as head of the baseball players union. Both have also failed at resolution: Bettman in 2004-05; Fehr upon invoking an unprecedented strike that annulled the final two months of the 1994 baseball schedule, and the World Series. Collective bargaining is a turbulent process.

Like it or not, however, these are the men entrusted by their constituents to negotiate an agreement. As in all-such matters, it is incumbent upon the leaders to obtain an advantageous deal; one that stoutly benefits their  party.

Frequently, the sides become bent on destruction – assuming that if they can generate angst among members of the rival group, it will implode, as with the P-A under Bob Goodenow’s direction. Nearly eight years later, the unspoken threat of “disclaimer of interest” and/or de-certification could be Fehr’s attempt at dividing NHL owners. A mere division, however, will not suffice.

It is incomprehensible that Bettman will lose the minimum eight NHL governors required to uphold any league stance. The players have not even hinted they will abandon Fehr, given the internal chaos engendered by their submission in 2005. Trust between parties isn’t the issue here. Scuffling for tangible benefit drives the process, as it must in every labor dispute.

Almost none of this seems to register on the outside. Any negotiating concept is viewed as gimmickry; a sham. As such, Bettman could have turned the tables on Thursday and wondered if lack of trust now governs the reporting mechanism. The honest answer would have been “yes.”

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