It's the four words every hockey fan has been waiting to hear; The lockout is over! After 113 gruelling days of CBA talks and PR battles, Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr decided to call a truce and get the game we all love back on the ice. On Sunday morning around 5 am Bettman and Fehr stood side by side for the first time to announce they had agreed to a new CBA structure and had a tentative deal done to end the lockout.
After the long process where neither the NHL or the NHLPA wanted to give into the other side there will be a lot of speculation over who "won" the lockout. The players were never going to win on things like salary cap, length of CBA and contract terms, but the fact they- led by Fehr lasted this long and literally drove Bettman to the brink is a huge testament to the NHLPA's win in the lockout. But the reason Fehr was able to have success compared to other heads of the NHLPA is his ability to rally the players together as one for a greater cause.
For the most part the NHLPA was completely united in their fight against Bettman and the league. Time after time you saw players send out tweets about how they supported Donald Fehr and were united in the lockout battle. While none of them really enjoyed not playing hockey they were determined to work together and not let the NHL run all over them like in 2004. Fehr managed to bring the players together for the greater good and keep them together through the lockout, especially when things got tough and seemed like there was no hope. Every player that was involved in this process bought into the Fehr system, thats the reason they were able the last so long and not be beat up by the league. Heck the league even offered the players a fairly decent deal in an attempt to get a deal done while Fehr was out of the room. The way Fehr was able to keep the players motivated was simple- "There's a better deal coming", is what he told the players time after time and he was right.
In addition to buying into the "Fehr system" the players were also united in their hatred of Bettman, they were determined not to get weaseled by the weasel. The owners and Bettman did everything they possibly could to get to the players union and make them turn on their leader. From threatening the season, to taking him out of the room- to the PR battles in the media to even writing letters to the players. But every time the NHL tried something the players just stood firm behind their leader. Not an easy decision for players who weren't getting their paycheques and even tougher for free agents who didn't have a team to return to. Not once did the players blink at one of the league's take it- or - leave it offers. You have to tip your hat to Fehr for rallying the players and making sure they stuck together like glue.
Fehr played this one very strong- he knew the NHL and the owners couldn't afford to play anything less than a 48 game season as a fully scraped season would set the game so far back it may not have bounced back. The owners were putting pressure on Bettman to get a deal done and save the season at any costs, so Fehr was able to push through the phony threats from his opposition until their backs were up against the wall and they had no option other than to make a deal. It was a catch 22 for the league, they wanted to give the players as little as possible to retain their dominance but they couldn't push the players to far or they would refuse to cooperate and potentially disband. Fehr knew that when push came to shove and the owners backs were against the wall they would have no choice but to offer the players a respectable deal. Despite playing a very dangerous game of chicken that nearly resulted in the season being lost, Fehr was able to force the owners hand in a deal.
But most importantly- and entertainingly for fans, is the fact Fehr was able to drive Bettman absolutely crazy! In 2004-2005 the lockout was pretty much a walk in the park for the owners. The players didn't have a strong negotiator to stand up for them and ended up losing in the long run, but bringing notorious negotiator Fehr ahead of this years CBA expiration indicated the players were looking for a much tougher battle this time around. Bettman tried every trick in the book to get Fehr to fold and take the offer he was shoving down the players throats, but still Fehr refused to budge. Every threat the league said ended up making them look stupid as none of it came true because of Fehr's perseverance. It got to the point where it seemed Bettman had no answer for Fehr- he didn't know what to do next, he became so uncomfortable knowing that Fehr had stymied his plan of driving the players into the ground.
The point it became evident to me that Bettman was losing it was the press conference after Fehr had gone back into the room after the owners had presented the players a new contract. Fehr went back into the room despite being warned not to by Bettman and told the owners what they could do with that offer, then stormed of with his players. That night Bettman left him an angry voicemail saying they were done negotiating- something uncharacteristic from the league commissioner, then the players association went to the media to show that Bettman was upset. Bettman then held his own press conference to tell everyone he wasn't pleased and negotiations had taken a step back and had in fact been stalled. During that press conference from Bettman, I've never seen him so annoyed, agitated and down right angry at anything that much before. Seeing true emotion from Bettman is rare and seeing so much from him- anger, frustration, confusion and flat-out annoyance, proved that Fehr was able to get under his skin during this lockout.
Donald Fehr came into this lockout with a game plan; He knew he couldn't let the league walk over the players again and was willing to play hardball until the owners gave him a pitch he could hit. He was able to see through Bettman's smoke screens to know he was bluffing on almost all his threats- that no deal was ever "off the table" and he was able to drive Bettman nuts. There was no question the players were going to bleed during this process, Fehr's job was to limit the bleeding and protect the players. Fehr was able to stop the bleeding at minimal damage and work out a deal that should truly help the players for years to come plus he had a little fun with Bettman along the way- it's a win-win for Donald Fehr and the NHLPA.