2012 NHL Lockout: Zen And The Art Of Observing Lockout Negotiations

Al Bello

I know it's tempting to follow the ongoing collective bargaining negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA with the zeal of a fan watching their favorite teams in a playoff games, but that's the least effective and most stressful way of understanding the big picture.

Let's get one thing straight - I desperately miss the NHL.

I miss the smell of the ice in the arena when you walk through the door. I miss jumping in surprise when a puck strikes the glass just beside my head in warmups. I miss nervously wringing my hands during a second-period penalty kill in game 54. And most of all, I miss having a team like the Dallas Stars where I can put all my competitive, emotional energy, where I can express my joy and winning and frustration and not being quite good enough for six months of the year.

I absolutely understand where everyone is coming from on Twitter and Facebook and blog comments with their anger and frustration and exasperation and elation at every twist and turn in the ongoing CBA negotiations. Every leak or brief media huddle prompts an outpouring or support or loathing across the internet.

But somehow, I think, that's not the best way to go about things as a fan. It's tempting to ride the roller coaster the way you do when you're watching a game, but almost nothing good can come from that.

To start, it might be a game, but it's a game where you can neither see the clock nor the score. Each move by the NHL and PA is almost certainly carefully calculated to create maximum leverage in the negotiation room or in the court of public opinion. They have the benefit of the larger picture, at least from their point of view, but as a fan we lack that. We know what we think should be the end-game for each side, but there's no guarantee we're accurate on either's sides views.

So when the NHL takes a stand on its proposed contract limits or the NHLPA rejects the offered version of the "Make Whole" clause, it's simply impossible to place that in the larger context of the negotiations and judge its impact because we have no way of seeing the whole picture.

Trust me, I understand the temptation. Everything about our culture now is framed in winners and losers, peaks and valleys. We judge drafts the day after they're completed, before the players have even been fitted for their NHL jerseys. We judge general managers on trades not made despite not knowing the offered return or asking price. It's what we do as fans.

But in lockout negotiations, it only leads to fan frustrations. Things are never as close as they seem nor as far away as you might fear, and it's so hard to remember that when each development seems like a goal for or a goal against.

That leads into the second problem with being completely invested in every small change - the information fans are getting is almost certainly designed more to manipulate than inform.

Now, that's not a shot at the reporters, who are handling a very difficult situation by attempting to find out whatever information they can and pass it along to their readers. But their information is only as good as their sources, and all of their sources in this case have some sort of agenda.

Take the Twitter meltdown on Friday night, which stemmed from Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune writing about the NHL's issues with Donald Fehr and how the league felt their recent proposal would be enough to win the NHLPA members over.

The hockey world expected nuclear meltdown, with one side or the other stomping back off to their corners, taking their ball and going home. Instead, we learned that although the negotiations were indeed contentious to the point of some screaming matches, things were still very much the status quo - deadlocked over certain issues but willing to continue dialog.

The source who leaked the information to Russo, almost certainly a league source based on the spin of the information provided, wanted that reaction. They wanted the fans to vilify Fehr and the players to question if they were getting the full picture. The information wasn't put out there to inform - it was put out there to provoke.

Almost all the information during this lockout is of that nature. Given that, reacting to each piece by putting the other side on emotional blast is really doing exactly what they want in the first place. And if you really invest yourself in each new revelation, you'll quickly fall victim to emotional fatigue and exhaustion.

So how, then, would I suggest watching the developments in the negotiations? With curiosity but emotional distance.

Some might call that apathy, but I disagree. Apathy is a complete emotional disconnect - you do not care how the problem develops and you continue to not care once it is solved. Emotional distance means simply not riding the roller coaster during the process though you will be happy to celebrate when it is resolved.

I realize that's a lot easier said than done. After all, as sports fans, we're conditioned to react and then analyze. Our reactions, our cheering at games or vitriol online, can, at least in our minds, affect the outcome of the game and the season. A well-timed cheer might motivate an athlete to perform just a tiny bit harder, and our objections and frustrations might reach up the management ladder and lead to a change in direction. The actual affect of those things is hard to determine, but we as fans at least feel like we can have an effect on the outcome.

And the thing with these lockout negotiations is that, frankly, we have no effect. Even if we boycott businesses and stage protests and write angry letters, the businessmen on both sides of this negotiation have no vested interest in listening. Right our wrong, our behavior after the 2004-05 lockout leads them to believe that we will come back whenever they get the deal they feel is best.

So as a fan, you have three choices as I see it. The first, obviously, is to choose real apathy and decide you really don't care if the NHL ever comes back. It's not my choice, but it sounds like it's the choice of many out there right now and is completely understandable.

If you're like me and know that you'll be back when the league is, even if your monetary investment might be smaller, then you can either ride the roller coaster and expose yourself to the emotional manipulation and exhaustion without any real additional insight or watch it from a remove and decide to spare your emotions until the ink is dry on the new CBA.

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with any of the three coping strategies. But I (and possibly the other writers here at DBD who have had to put up with me during each period of breaking news) can endorse the third wholeheartedly.

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