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NHLPA chickens out on Fehr, Phoenix feels the squeeze, more

Memo to members of the NHL Players Association 30-man executive committee:

Gentlemen, for the record, accepting a position of responsibility means doing something. Accepting a motion to bail on the opportunity to vote on whether to extend a contract offer to Donald Fehr as your designated leader is ducking the leadership issue.

Sorry to say so, but I don't know what it is about hockey players. When it comes to taking a stand on something, the majority tends to back off as quickly as possible. Maybe it has something to do with accepting coaches as father figures at a ridiculously young age and almost always bowing to their authority. Maybe the power wielded by general managers has something to do with it. That's a possibility.

A second might be that the considerable salary demanded by an experienced sports labor lawyer, one who also happens to have a track record for success, has caused some NHLPA members to balk.

If it's possibility No. 1, well, my advice is to grow the heck up.

If it's No. 2, well, seriously, what did you expect?

If it's a combination of the two, well, God help you all because without the intervention of a supreme being, you guys don't have a chance in the next CBA negotiations.

According to published reports, Fehr, an unpaid advisor for nearly a year, has largely orchestrated the rewrite of the once-crippling NHLPA constitution into a document that might actually benefit a leader with the vision and wisdom to use it. He's garnered high praise, earned serious consideration as the union's next boss, and reportedly put forth some expensive but not totally unreasonable demands (none of which have been confirmed by Fehr or the NHLPA):

- A salary of $3 million per year to run through completion of collective bargaining after the current CBA expires following the 2011-12 season.

- A salary of $1.5 million for the remainder of this year.

- Approval to hire his brother, Steve, who is currently special counsel to the MLBPA (after 23 years as outside counsel), to an executive position.

- Autonomy relating to all personnel decisions within the union.

- The ability to live in New York even though the PA's offices are in Toronto.

- Permission to co-author a book about baseball with Steve.

- Permission to open a consulting firm, though with the express stipulation that his first priority at all times will be the NHLPA.

That seems like a lot to ask, not necessarily in money, for someone who appears to be asking the going rate for a sports union head with an enviable track record. The request to hire his brother (rumored to be at billable hours at the going New York lawyer rate) seems a little iffy and certainly open to a negotiation. Autonomy on personnel is reasonable considering the past history of infighting in the PA's offices. All the rest should be considered as something less than deal-breakers, but negotiable nonetheless.

Yet when it came to making a decision to hire Fehr, the 30 members of the committee balked. Mark Stuart, the Boston Bruins player rep, told reporter James Murphy of ESPN Boston that no vote was taken on Fehr and none is scheduled. Stuart then did what all committee members seem to be doing: indicating that Fehr is the best man for the job but the committee needs more input on the hiring decision.

That stance was echoed by Calgary Flames rep Robyn Regehr. Though not a member of the five-man search committee, Regehr is in the group of 30 and has indicated that he's had concerns about Fehr's compensation package to the point where he wanted to postpone the vote and go back to Calgary to get feedback and deliver explanations to the rank and file.

Sensible, but it also smells of a cop-out. Regehr, the subject of trade rumors, acknowledges that he might not even be the Flames' union rep come the start of the season. One gets the sense that he, along with the other 29 members of the executive committee, would rather not deal with the compensation issue.

Talk is good, informed membership is useful, but this issue has dragged on for a year. It's clear that at least the five-man search committee wants Fehr in the top spot. The only thing left to resolve is price.

The executive committee can meet all of Fehr's demands, or at least a good many, and rest assured that it has hired an executive director whose credentials are above reproach. The NHLPA will also have hired a leader who knows the union's inner workings, needs and weaknesses. That's valuable knowledge for anyone coming in facing a major contract negotiation in just two years. The NHLPA would be hard-pressed to find another who is as respected as a leader and experienced as a negotiator. Looking for another candidate now wastes the year that was spent on bringing Fehr up to speed on hockey and its issues.

Say what you will about Fehr's motives and movements in gaining insider status as an unpaid advisor (not to mention possible conflicts of interest in rewriting the constitution to suit his perception of the job), but that's what you get when you go after someone worth hiring. To balk now, after singing his praises and accepting his free advice, because of issues linked to cash seems weak, a concession to not wanting to accept the responsibility that comes with making tough decisions.

There are plenty of $3 million-plus players in the NHL whose exploits on the ice don't even begin to compare with the accomplishments the former head of the MLBPA has on his resume. If the players want the best available leader -- and history shows that they need exactly that -- they must make a decision and live with it.

Do they think someone else is going to do it for them?

Through all the battles with Jim Balsillie and extended negotiations with Jerry Reinsdorf and representatives from Ice Edge Holdings, the NHL, especially Commissioner Gary Bettman, argued that the league does not run out on cities and its goal is to stabilize existing franchises. Now, according to reports in the Phoenix Business Journal that have been neither confirmed nor denied by the NHL, on September 15 the City of Glendale may have to start paying to cover the losses of the league-owned Coyotes.

That comes about because last May the NHL demanded (some would say, extorted) a $25 million fund from the city to cover the Coyotes' costs and losses by September 15. The city was said to have okayed the fund in the belief that it would never have to use it, given that the NHL had indicated that it would have a buyer willing to keep the franchise in Phoenix. Failing that, if the city didn't provide the fund, the league would likely be forced to sell to a buyer who would move the team, possibly to a city in Canada.

The Phoenix Business Journal indicated that Glendale went along and declared the $25 million as something akin to an insurance policy that would at the very least protect the city's already extensive investment in the franchise and the building that houses it. The league is said to be in talks with investors from Chicago (not related to Reinsdorf or Ice Edge), but it's considered a longshot that a deal will be completed before the September deadline. If that is indeed the case, Glendale is expected to hand over some $2 million in operating costs to the NHL.

The league spent around $140 million (not including court and attorney costs) to reclaim the Coyotes franchise from Balsillie's bid in bankruptcy court. It is said to be holding out for a $170 million franchise fee for a new owner who must keep the team in city-built Jobing.com Arena. The NHL, however, does have the option to sell the Coyotes to anyone, including owners who are interested in moving the franchise, if a buyer willing to keep the franchise in Glendale isn't found by December 31.

With business partners like that, who needs enemies?

This is so un-Canadian that one would expect the story came from tax-wasters in the U.S., but according to numerous reports, the Province of Quebec is willing to throw in some 45 percent of an estimated $400 million to build an arena capable of housing an NHL team.

No knock on Quebec, a city and province that was forced to give up its NHL legacy when the Nordiques were sold off to become the Colorado Avalanche (in part because of the antiquated LeColisee in Quebec City), but this is dangerous territory even if the Coyotes become available.

The new building can't be built (at least according to politicians in Quebec) unless the entire project is publicly financed. By the time that gets done and the building gets built, it's likely that the Phoenix situation will be settled. That would leave Quebec in the running with Hamilton and perhaps Winnipeg as Canadian cities that could be used as stalking horses for any NHL owner who is not happy with his lease or revenue streams (read: South Florida, Atlanta and maybe even Columbus, Nashville or Carolina.)

It's not as if the NHL hasn't played this site card before. Pittsburgh used the option of an empty building in Kansas City as a threat in its quest for the Penguins' new arena that will open this season. New York Islanders owner Charles Wang has issued similar threats if a mega-redevelopment deal on Long Island doesn't come to pass with a new arena included. The once-bankrupt Buffalo Sabres occasionally used the threat of a possible move to Portland, Oregon, to help settle its issues before a new owner came on board.

Over the decades. it's been a tried and true tactic in other leagues, especially in baseball and football. Quebec taxpayers need to be aware of that and understand that they could be left with an expensive, empty building. That awareness will put them miles ahead of where the good citizens of Glendale are right now.

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