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Oh, he was mad all right.

With Gary Bettman, there’s no mistaking it. The tense, twitchy body language, the eyes bulging a bit, the normally scripted public relations speak suddenly sounding like the words of a real live human being. That loss of control doesn’t happen often in public settings, but when it does, the whole world knows the commissioner is peeved. This was special, though, standing at the podium in New York on Thursday night. This was extraordinary.

And for some sitting at home interpreting the National Hockey League lockout as though it were a game or a night of theatre, this was evidence finally, that the lawyer who was the National Basketball Association's gift to hockey finally, really gave a damn about the sport just the way the fans do.

Could be. Could be that Bettman desperately misses all of those nights at the rink. Could be, also, that he doesn’t like the idea of having “Only Sports Commissioner Ever To Lose Two Full Seasons To Owner Lockouts” engraved on his tombstone.

But here’s an alternate explanation.

What set Bettman off was staring across the bargaining table at his mirror image.

Ask anyone who has had to haggle out a deal with Bettman behind closed doors and they’ll paint a picture of a brilliant, calculating and ruthless negotiator, who seizes every advantage, who when presented with an opportunity goes straight for the kill. He understands his opposition’s weak points, he knows his side’s strengths, and with a cool head and cold eyes he calculates the path to victory. That’s one reason why his employers, the owners, love him, and pay him the big bucks.

Consider the last NHL labour negotiations in 2004 and 2005. Employing classic divide and conquer tactics, understanding that hockey players in their hearts still feel darned lucky to be playing a game for a living, seeing the cracks in the infrastructure around Bob Goodenow, Bettman soon enough had the union membership enthusiastically sticking knives in the back of their own leader.

And the tipping point of that process?

When the players offered up a 24 per cent salary roll back to avoid a salary cap, and Bettman and the owners gratefully accepted their generosity as a starting point, and then ground them into the dust.

The players hired Donald Fehr as their union head because he is Bettman’s equal. He is there to guard them against falling prey to their own sentimentality about the game, to protect their interests in a negotiation in which everyone understood that they would be giving back, would be surrendering rights and surrendering money guaranteed in the previous collective agreement.

Clearly a student of history, Fehr began by restructuring the union hierarchy so that there was no longer a ready-made group of potential Brutuses who might be turned against him. Bettman and the owners have attempted the same strategy this time around, contacting players directly, whispering about revolts in the rank and file, suggesting that Fehr isn’t telling the whole truth, that it’s his presence alone that is preventing a deal. But so far, it doesn’t seem to be working nearly as well as it did against Goodenow.

We have now also had “good cop” owners enter the picture, we have had Sidney Crosby ride in on his white horse, we have had numerous propaganda volleys from both sides. But what’s been going on away from all of that staged drama is a hard, grind-it-out negotiation, with Fehr playing the same kind of frustrate-the-opposition defence that theNew Jersey Devils employed in the bad old days.

It is going to be tough getting to the finish, though surely that’s still in the cards. Fehr is going to negotiate against a deadline – a real hard deadline to salvage the season , wherever that actually lies – and try to hold back any impulsive moves by his membership. Along the way, he’s going to grab whatever he can.

Like when the owners offered to up their "make whole" offer to $300-million this week, thinking that number would turn heads and shift the emotional tide and lead to the players rushing past the other details in their hurry to get back on the ice.

That’s great, Fehr said. Thanks for the money.

Now let’s negotiate the other stuff.

Gee, where have we seen that before?

Stephen Brunt | December 7, 2012, 12:23 pm

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