Inside the room: How the NHL season was saved
It says it all about the NHL's most recent lockout that when the first hands on a new deal were shaken, Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr were cloistered away from the action.
In the wee hours of Sunday, Jan. 6, NHL Commissioner Bettman sat alone in a small conference room, eating room service breakfast food of an omelet and pancakes. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, preferring the hotel turkey club, intermittently scurried from the main conference room, where negotiations were taking place between the league and the NHL Players Association, to brief Bettman on the latest developments.'Donald Fehr, meanwhile, was in the larger ballroom occupied by NHLPA staff and roughly 20 players, getting updates primarily from his Bill Cosby-sweatered brother, Steve. By this point in the process, players had broken into the couple cases of beer on hand.
If the 119th day of the lockout was to pass without a deal, nobody was going to leave the ball room sober at least. Federal mediator Scot L. Beckenbaugh was according to our sources already a heavy smoker before having his services enlisted by the parties, but this lockout might have turned him into a carton-a-day guy before much longer.'But finally, as it neared the 5 o'clock hour, smoke signals emerged from the main conference room: deal.
Based on conversations with those in that room, the final day-night-day conclusion to the lockout was a surreal ordeal in which Bettman, Donald Fehr and a bleary-eyed, Tweet-happy press corps hung on every word. Those from both sides of the aisle confirmed to SI.com that the magic moment end of the lockout came when Daly first reached across the table to Steve Fehr and asked "Do we have a deal?" and was received with an outstretched hand.
The NHL was represented by four men in the morning's final hours: Daly, chief legal officer David Zimmerman and outside counsel Bob Batterman and Shepard Goldfein. The NHLPA was primarily represented by Steve Fehr and three players: Shane Doan, Ron Hainsey and George Parros, with other clerical staff on hand. Doan, by all accounts, should get a stick tap from his brethren for what was something of an inspirational speech that made a good impression on the NHL side.
Doan gave an impassioned talk of what the game meant to those who loved it. A lost season, he said, would be virtual suicide for the sport. Parros, with his Princeton education, also greatly impressed the NHL side with his reasoned, articulate arguments.
For the players, the biggest final sticking point was the cap number on the 2013-14 season. Early Saturday, their demand to owners had been a cap of $65 million, while the NHL was still offering only $60 million. But mediator Beckenbaugh, whose calm, Midwestern, folksy demeanor got the sides back in the room after everything was nearly derailed tthe previous Wednesday night knew from his one-on-four chats with the NHL side that there was wiggle room on that cap number.
Gradually, he helped convince the owners to come up to $62.5 million, but the players held firm at $65 million. Beckenbaugh kept at it, and Doan's speech about the importance of a kind-of cost certainty for the security of players and their families next season softened the NHL up a bit more.
One person who was in the room all day/night/morning characterized the mood in the end as: "We weren't going to leave the hotel that day without a deal. Both sides realized they had to do a deal. That gave everyone a kind of adrenaline and, in a way, a sense of relief, that carried the day. But it still wasn't fun. It was never fun in this seven-month process."
Finally, the players started hinting around that the seemingly random figure of $64.3 million might be acceptable. "Why that exact number, though," Bettman and Daly thought? Then it quickly occurred to them: that was the same cap number from the 2011-12 season, and it would be a symbol of pride for the players to keep it that way going forward -- even though they would still take seven-percent less in overall revenues, as already negotiated.
The NHL side relented on the cap number, and the deal was done. Finally, men like Daly and Steve Fehr could share good-hearted jokes at each other's expense -- Daly, at Fehr's ever-present, multi-colored sweater and Fehr at Daly's Mr. Freeze chrome dome.
There was just one problem: all the beer was gone. Just when Daly in particular really needed to toss back a cold one, there were nothing but empties in the big players' side ballroom and it was too late to order one from room service. All the way on the walk back to his hotel at around 6 a.m., in fact,
Daly searched in vain for an open bar. He would end up having a solitary beer from the mini-bar in his room.
For a lockout that seemed as if it would never end and lacked any sense of conviviality, it seemed to be a fitting conclusion.