NHL commissioner Gary Bettman does not like Donald Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association.
We're not talking about "like" in the traditional sense. As in he would not play a round of golf with Fehr, share a meal with him or remember old times together.
We're talking about the business of negotiating.
Bettman does not like Fehr because he is what he has always been—a professional negotiator who does everything in his power to give his union the best representation he can.
Bettman and the NHL have tried to paint Fehr with the "dishonest" brush at one point in the negotiations, saying he was not giving the NHL players the full picture of what was being offered by them (source: N.Y. Post).
However, when word filtered to the league that the NHLPA was going to ask its players to vote on a disclaimer of interest, the league objected and the NHL went to court to file a class action suit against such a move.
The league was basically saying that Fehr gave the players professional representation and the disclaimer of interest votes was just a negotiating tactic.
The NHL can't have it both ways in this argument.
The NHL doesn't like Fehr because he is experienced and has been through the wars during his long run with the Major League Baseball Players Association. Throughout his time in baseball, he gained the respect of the players he represented and his adversaries on the other side of the table as an honest professional (source: MLB.com).
The Major League Baseball executives may not have liked negotiating with Fehr, but they did not paint him as a liar.
Fehr came to the NHLPA with the understanding that the players had taken it on the chin in the 2004-05 lockout.
When he heard Bettman talking about the league's increased revenues last season since the previous lockout, he might have thought that negotiations on the Collective Bargaining Agreement might be a reasonable endeavor (source: Sportsnet.ca).
But just months after talking about the league's improved financial health, Bettman wanted further cuts on the players' end.
From receiving 57 percent of the revenues down to 50 percent.
At least that's where the negotiations stood when the two sides were talking (source: TSN.ca). Agreement had been reached on that point.
What separates the two sides is the length of contracts free agents who leave their current team may sign and the length of the CBA itself.
The league does not want unrestricted free agents to sign contracts of longer than five years. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, Bettman's second in command, called it the hill the NHL is willing to die on (source: Canada.ca).
The NHLPA wants players to be able to sign for more than five years.
Why is this keeping the two sides from signing a deal and playing hockey?
It certainly seems that both sides are dug in and intractable.
The NHL wants another clean sweep in its negotiations with the players, just as it got in the 2004-05 lockout.
The NHLPA has said enough is enough. If it does not win on this point, when will it ever win?
On the surface, both sides are wrong. Compromise has to be the tool that is used so the 2012-13 season can begin.
But Fehr is dealing with the best hockey players in the world. They have won at every level on the ice to reach the NHL.
Rolling over and taking beating after beating at the negotiating table is abhorrent to them. They have to stop the carnage somewhere and this is their Dunkirk, even if Daly claimed "the hill" as the league's own.
Fehr, in short, has backbone. If Bettman and Daly didn't know it before, they should have.
They certainly know it now.