NHL PR gaffe shows league isn't focused on negotiations

Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images

The NHL hired political strategist Frank Luntz to help craft their PR message during the lockout. They're more focused on their perception than actually negotiating with the NHLPA.

The NHL lockout reached the one month mark at midnight Sunday and while both sides have attempted to sway public opinion in their direction, the league's owners have done a relatively poor job over that stretch. Trying to give NHL fans the feeling that they're on the same page as owners, they have instead come off much like the greed-driven owners of companies that moved their operations -- as well as jobs -- overseas, leaving average citizens with a bitter taste in their mouth as economic times continue to get more challenging.

The affect of the lockout on fans cannot be in direct comparison to those losing viable and meaningful employment, though those who make their living at NHL arenas who have lost their income as rinks remain empty can absolutely relate.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly's press releases have tried to give the feeling of a kinship with the general public against the "out of touch expectations of players" who are evidently ridiculous to think the owners should live up to terms of the contracts that have already been signed. Those efforts have fallen rather flat, instead angering a fan base that is once again at the mercy of a governing group that has withheld NHL hockey for a second time in eight years and third in 18.

On the eve of the next round of CBA negotiations -- which have been anything but productive towards a resolution of the core economic issues, which are continually pushed to the back burner while lesser aspects are discussed -- some enlightening news came as to a potential new strategy by the league.

A Deadspin article Monday exposed a secretive NHL focus group that met Friday night in the D.C. suburbs. Thirty people were paid $100 each to answer questions over a three hour period, all with the express purpose of trying to find a soft spot in the underbelly of hockey fans everywhere. This research was conducted by Luntz Global, the company run by the Republican Party's chief strategist Frank Luntz.

As Barry Petchesky points out the mantra of Luntz Global is "It's not what you say, it's what they hear", it would appear the league is going to attempt to soothe the raw nerves of fans already suffering from withdrawal by missing their favorite sport with a renewed campaign to show a "shared sacrifice".

The sacrifice on behalf of ownership is what Daly claims to be in excess of $250 million in lost revenues thus far. As the maneuverings made by multi-millionaires and billionaires usually come with a long-term focus squarely in the crosshairs, losing a lesser amount in the present with the promise of a tremendous windfall down the road is the likely game plan. The $3,000 paid to the focus group as well as the "tens of thousands of dollars" paid to the Luntz Global groups -- is a veritable drop in the bucket when compared to the concessions demanded from the NHLPA. That's why they make money, because they have the wherewithal and financial fortitude to hold out long enough to do so.

Disingenuous is a word that constantly comes to mind as to the league's negotiations so far, and it also goes for their portrayal of the players' association. The constant "we're waiting for a new proposal" is meant to shift the onus squarely onto the shoulders of Donald Fehr, but the truth is when the owners have said any new proposal must begin with a consent to a 17% player salary reduction, it's no wonder no such new offer has been forthcoming.

Also potentially disturbing in the presentation to the focus group -- which images were included in the Deadspin piece via whichever subject decided to expose the meeting -- was the inclusion of a fight photo. Maybe not so coincidentally was the fact the tussle was between the late Derek Boogaard (then of the Minnesota Wild) and the then-Los Angeles Kings tough guy Raitis Ivanans. Perhaps it was just happenstance of selecting a random fight picture, but it would seem safe to say it could have been a fairly classless move to include the image of the troubled NHL enforcer who passed away in May of 2011.

As far as fans go the loss comes in the form of a forfeiture of pleasure derived from watching the game they love, plain and simple, and there's really nothing they can do to bring closure in the matter.

With the knowledge the league was planning a new strategy in trying to win over an understandably disenchanted fan base at the same time it was announced the sides would meet in Toronto Tuesday, it would almost seem a certainty that fans should not get their hopes up that anything of importance will be accomplished.

While the mouthpiece for league owners has paid a good deal of lip service portraying a good faith effort in trying to reach an agreement with the NHLPA on a new CBA, it cannot bode well that they seem much more interested in spending more money on selling their negotiating stance as a viable position instead of actually engaging in meaningful negotiations. Especially when the next group of games in danger of being wiped off the NHL schedule -- slated to begin on October 25th -- are likely to be erased in the next few days.

Luntz Global specializes in putting a different spin on negative terminology and with the way things are shaping up, it just may end up that the league will incomprehensibly need them to describe yet another lost season.

As the NHLPA awaits restraints to be removed from their collective bargaining platform and with several Russian players threatening to remain elsewhere even when the NHL finally resumes play -- dependent upon what they end up having to "sacrifice" (there's that word again!) in this latest round of give backs -- maybe Luntz Global can come up with a shoddy attempt to brand another senseless cancelation of an entire season.

And while it will no doubt be casting the players as the cause and ultimate "bad guys" in the situation, (even without benefit of a costly focus group) it seems safe to say it's almost a lock that the villains will be perceived as those occupying the other side of the stalemate.

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