Yesterday, when Paddy arrived for our regular Friday coffee and chat, he didn’t even wait until one of us fetched the coffees before he launched into his interrogation. “Well,” he practically shouted, “how do you feel about the NHL settlement and the Brian Burke firing?”
“Let’s deal with the NHL settlement first,” I said, “I’m glad the dispute is over, but I’m still annoyed that a settlement which could have been reached last August took until now to be achieved.”
“Where did it go wrong?” was his next question.
“It went wrong, as you put it, on a number of levels,” I began my explanation. “First, and in my opinion the overriding reason, was that both Fehr and Bettman set out to defeat and embarrass the other side before seriously trying to reach an agreement.”
“Why do you think that was?” asked Paddy.
“With Bettman,” I replied, “it’s just his personality. He’s an arrogant little despot who can’t accept the fact that he may not be the smartest person who ever walked the face of the earth. And he’s simply incapable of admitting that he could ever make a mistake. Just look at his ridiculous stand regarding the Phoenix Coyotes.”
“OK,” said Paddy, “but why did Fehr act the way he did?”
“Two reasons, I think,” was my reply. “First, he had nothing to lose. This is the only hockey CBA he’s ever going to negotiate, so he felt that he had to do whatever it took to get something, no matter how small, for the players. I think the second reason was that he really had no other leverage. No matter how skilled a negotiator may be, he’s only as good as his leverage. And the only leverage the players had was to not give in until they absolutely had to. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he feels the same way about Bettman as I do.”
“You’ve done a lot of negotiating in your career,” Paddy said, “so on what other levels, to use your term, did you think this one went wrong?”
“Let’s start with what constitutes a successful negotiation,” I answered. “If you set out for a win/lose, which these guys did, you’ll never get anywhere. A successful negotiation is either win/win, which is when both sides come out of it better off in some way, or lose/lose, which is when both sides give up more than they wanted to.”
“I remember you saying one time that you had a yardstick by which you measured a successful negotiation,” Paddy said, “but I’ve forgotten what it was.”
I took that to be a question and said, “Yes, my definition of a successful negotiation is when both sides are a bit disappointed. If one side is happy and the other isn’t, there will never be long-term satisfaction. If both sides are happy, then someone missed something and, when they figure out what it was they missed, again there won’t be long-term satisfaction.”
“So,” said Paddy,” isn’t that where they are?”
“Probably,” I agreed, “but they could have been there in August.”
“Any other big mistakes?” asked Paddy.
“Two more at least,” I replied, “It’s well established in negotiating circles that you can’t antagonize and persuade at the same time. Gary Bettman antagonizes people just by being alive, and then exacerbates the antagonism every time he opens his mouth. It got so bad that even Bill Daly, the deputy NHL commissioner, who is usually a reasonable guy, got into the act of bad-mouthing the PA.”
“What else?” prodded Paddy.
“An ultimatum should never be introduced until near the end of a negotiation. Bettman started with an ultimatum, and continually introduced ultimatums all along the way,” I pointed out.
“As usual, you seem to lay most of the blame on Bettman,” Paddy accused.
“Where else?” I asked. “He caused most, if not all, of the problems the owners were whining about with his wrong-headed expansion into non-hockey markets. Then, instead of leading the owners out of the financial wilderness he got them into, he expected the players to solve the league’s financial problems by insisting that they bail out the owners.. That’s another thing; Bettman is a dictator, not a leader.”
“Why do you think they settled now?” Paddy asked.
“Because both sides realized that they were at the point where the season would have to be cancelled. This would mean both sides would lose more than they could ever hope to gain. The problem is, as I said earlier, they were at that point when Bettman locked out the players.”
“OK,” said Paddy, “but does the settlement meet your lose/lose definition?”
“Yes. The players lost by having to accept a much lower share of the so-called hockey-related-revenue. They also have to accept a lower salary cap starting next year. The league lost by granting the players a defined benefit pension plan. Believe me, Paddy, that pension plan concession is capable of coming back to bite the owners in the bum.”
“Those are all negatives,” Paddy observed and then asked, “is there anything positive in the agreement?”
“Oh, yes,” I smiled, “the term of the agreement means that the megalomaniac Gary Bettman won’t be around for the next negotiation.”
“Oh, come on, Lyman,” Paddy moaned, “Bettman offered an apology and seemed contrite at his press conference on Wednesday.”
“But,” I countered, “I suspect there was damn little sincerity.”
“You just won’t cut him any slack, will you?” Paddy said.
“No,” I agreed.
“OK,” Paddy accepted and then asked, “Were you surprised by the Brian Burke firing?”
“I wasn’t surprised that he got fired,” I replied, “but, yes, I was surprised at the timing.”
“Do you know him?” Paddy inquired.
“I was on a two-day panel with him at a sports management conference a few years ago,” I answered, “and, as an ardent hockey fan who lives in Toronto I’ve followed him closely over the last four years.”
“What do you think of him?” asked Paddy.
“Stubborn, honest, over-confident, quick tempered, not very diplomatic, ineffective communicator,” I answered, and then added, “Now that I think about it, he’s a lot like Bettman.”
“Even with his great hockey reputation and for all his bluster, he certainly failed with the Leafs,” Paddy observed. “But if that was why he was fired, why now? You said you were only surprised at the timing, not the fact that he was fired. Why do you think he was fired, and why the timing?”
“I can only guess,” I said, “but here is my guess.
“There’s a new boardroom culture at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment since Bell and Rogers took over in August. The old owners, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, basically a private trust, had nothing to lose if the Leafs didn’t win because the fans couldn’t hurt it, and furthermore, media relations didn’t matter. Bell and Rogers are public companies with millions of customers each and they do have something to lose if the Leafs continue to be a laughing stock, and especially if one of their most visible executives continued to antagonize everybody he came in contact with. See, there’s that Bettman comparison again.”
“Another of your fine sermons,” interrupted Paddy, “but I also asked you about the timing.”
“I was about to get to that when you interrupted,” I retorted. “I think someone on the new board wanted him out right from taking over in August but was meeting resistance from other board members.
“A lot of people are saying it was George Cope. He’s the CEO of Bell Canada. They suggest that Cope feels about Burke about the same way as I do about Bettman, and is the one who wanted to fire Burke back in August. However, the story goes, Cope couldn’t convince the Rogers people to go along with him. Then, something happened on Tuesday that allowed Cope to get his way, and Brian was gone first thing Wednesday morning.”
“What happened?” asked Paddy quite reasonably.
“I don’t know,” I replied “nobody outside MLSE seems to know. There’s a lot of speculation. One theory is that Burke sparked the change by saying he wouldn’t make a deal for Luongo even if ordered to do so by the board. Both sides have denied that anything in particular happened on Tuesday, but it sure looks like something did.”
“Who are the board members?” Paddy asked.
“There are six,” I told him. “Larry Tannenbaum, who owns the 25% of MLSE that Bell and Rogers don’t hold, is the chairman. The Rogers representatives are Nadir Mohamed, the CEO of Rogers, and Edward Rogers, who is the late Ted Rogers’ son. Cope, and a woman by the name of Mary Ann Turcke, whom I’ve never heard of, are Bell’s representatives. Dale Lastman, MLSE’s lawyer, rounds it off. I think Cope, Mohamed and Tanenbaum are the only ones who really count.”
“OK,” said Paddy, “that may cover the timing. Why were you not surprised that he was fired?”
“In any critical analysis, there are really only four ways by which anyone is judged: What you do and how you do it; what you say and how you say it. Would Burke, as Leaf GM, score positively on any of these?” I asked.
“One more thing,” Paddy said, “if the part about the board overruling Burke on Luongo is true, would that bother you?”
“A lot,” I said, “and here’s why. When Steve Stavro was trying to hire me as CEO of Maple Leaf Gardens back in 1990, a sports journalist asked me why I thought I knew how to run a hockey team. My reply was that I didn’t know how to run a hockey team, but I did know how to run a company that owned a hockey team. Mr. Cope would do well to pay attention to that statement.”
“Why are you singling out Cope and not implicating Mohamed?” asked Paddy.
“Two reasons,” I explained, “First, most pundits, and some of them are very well connected and informed, are saying it was Cope. And I’m also playing the odds. Rogers has owned the Blue Jays for many years now without even a hint of interference in running the ball club.”
“Gotcha,” said Paddy getting up from his chair, “see you next week.”