Donald Fehr and the NHLPA

NAVA BRAHE: Any baseball fan knows the name “Donald Fehr” is synonymous with labor unrest. Even though he may be older and mellower than he was when he whipped the Major League Baseball Players Association into a frenzy, I don’t put it past him to wreak havoc once the NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement expires. The NHL, such as it is, is a combustible mix of a Napoleonic commissioner, an ever-growing group of bad owners, and a players’ union that doesn’t seem to know its ass from its elbow. That combined with teams in cities they have no business being in, spells unequivocal disaster.

This isn’t so much about Donald Fehr being appointed the new chief of the NHLPA as it is a sad commentary on the state of the NHL. From an historical standpoint, no one in the position of NHLPA director could possibly be more heinous than Alan Eagleson. Reading Russ Conway’s Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey, will bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has ever been ripped off by a labor union; athlete or not.

The specter of Donald Fehr looms large because of his past reputation, and it makes me wonder why, in his 60s, he feels the need to come out of retirement to babysit the NHLPA. Ron McLean of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada interviewed Fehr, right after news of his appointment was made public. I love Ron McLean for his singular wit and his passion for hockey, but when you put a person of power in front of him, the man is about as hard-hitting a journalist as a bag of Styrofoam packing peanuts. The concern, obviously, is the worry of another season-killing lockout. Would the NHL be crazy enough to chance that happening a second time? Do you even get a second opportunity to pull off something like that? My feeling is, if it does happen, it has the potential to bring down the league permanently. Part of me would love to see it happen, and part of me would keen in mourning over the destruction of a love that has been with me my entire life. Yes, life would go on, and it would be interesting as hell to witness the fallout. Certainly, it wouldn’t have the same impact as losing the NFL or Major League Baseball (perish the thought!), but I would venture to guess about 90% of the Canadian population would lose their raison d’etre. I’m not kidding.

What was more compelling, in my opinion, was the fact that CBC was able to dig up 93 year-old former MLBPA director, Marvin Miller, to opine about Fehr’s NHLPA appointment. Miller, being Fehr’s predecessor and rabbi, had nothing but great things to say about him, despite his bewilderment at Fehr’s accepting the position. He had nothing positive at all to say about the present group of NHL owners, and I am in complete agreement on that front. Then again, why would the man who once represented machinists, steel workers and auto workers have anything good to say about any owner? In this case, he happens to be right on the money. The NHL owners are a scary bunch, and moving forward with a cantankerous man such as Donald Fehr as their nemesis, spells “trouble” in a font so big it is non-existent.

No one disputes that the NHL is the ugly step-sister of all the major sports. NASCAR and the WWE rank higher on the credibility scale than the NHL. It saddens me to have to say that about a game I adore, particularly now that I am back in the “mother country”, watching my countrymen and women enjoy it so much. Much as they want you to believe otherwise, Canadians would be rudderless without hockey. It is a profound shame that the league that best represents it is in such disarray. I hope, despite the involvement of men like Gary Bettman, Charles Wang, Donald Fehr, and countless other knob-heads, the game will manage to survive. Since none of us has a crystal ball, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will actually happen.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Maybe, just maybe, Donald Fehr sees an oyster just waiting to be pried open. Maybe he genuinely sees money left on the table for players. The biggest cynic would probably see Fehr as someone looking to methodically tear down the National Hockey League in the way that Major League Baseball was upended with the 1994 strike and the PEDs/steroids scandals.

Fair enough.

Yet, could he be the stubborn bull that finally has the strength to locks horns with Gary Bettman?

This scribe can’t say he is as familiar with the NHL Players Association in the way that most American sports fans can name the executive directors of the other three major pro leagues. However, much of this has to do with what Nava highlighted, a carousel of apparent clowns and crooks that neutered the union for decades. What I could say is that in previously shepherding arguably the most powerful union in the United States, Fehr will be the long-awaited (or maybe bemoaned) foil to oft-criticized commissioner Bettman.

As much of a public relations nightmare the lockout was six years ago, the NHL did itself a favor during that cancelled 2004-05 season in instituting not only a salary cap, but a floor to compel the so-called poorest of owners to dole out some cash to improve its on-ice product. With the league capturing much, if not all of its pre-lockout audience back, there’s tremendous momentum for the league to reap in a larger broadcasting contract in the near future; especially with the impending Comcast takeover of NBC making for an interesting battle with ESPN.

Fehr undoubtedly sees this as an opportunity. Any labor union head worth her or his salt is forward-thinking and mindful of the revenue drivers for an industry. What we don’t know yet is how he will work in a league with a dedicated floor; something that baseball sure as heck could use. There’s no question that with tenuous ownership situations in some markets and the strong desire to return some franchises back to Canada, there will be a few owners who will want to play things safe and hold onto the $43 million+ floor in 2012.

What Fehr inherits is a union for a league that has begun, in a few respects, to get its act together when it comes to its financial operations. What he was able to manipulate with the MLBPA was remarkable in that for owners such as the late George Steinbrenner that were willing to open their wallets, there were cheapskates like former Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy (and current owner Robert Nutting) and Florida’s Jeffery Loria. Despite revenue sharing and public financing of many baseball parks, these men were emboldened to cry poor with the lack of impetus from Bud Selig & company to actually spend money. There are definitely penny-pinchers in the NHL ranks, but this is more mitigated by a Board of Governors who probably don’t believe in credit checks than a system that encourages spending.

Even if the 64-year old Executive Director is there to bring stability to a volatile union for a couple of years, it’ll be fascinating to see how Fehr, Bettman and others dance the labor contract waltz over the next 21 months.

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