By Stu Hackel
While headline writers and a hockey columnist can joyously exploit the homonym of his last name, only those who live to crush the NHL players' union can honestly say that the only thing they have to fear is Fehr himself. The rest of us will have to wait and see what Donald Fehr's tenure as the NHLPA's executive director means. But Fehr may not be the boogieman some people think.
Among the certainties that Fehr brings to the job, however, is that he'll provide the players with the strongest possible advocate for their interests. What he lacks in specific experience in the hockey business -- and he's a very quick study, according to those who have worked with him -- he easily makes up for with his 26 years of experience as executive director of the MLB Players' Association.
Because that experience includes three work stoppages, including the one that canceled the 1994 playoffs and World Series, some hockey observers automatically assume that the NHL owners and players are en route to a deadly head-on collision when the current CBA expires in September 2012. But lost in the pain of those stoppages was what happened later, especially in 2002, when Fehr negotiated an unexpected agreement with MLB that averted what most assumed to be inevitable: another shutdown of baseball.
Although there had been talk of contraction and a stalemate on steroids testing, both sides wanted to avoid a repeat of '94 and saw that the business was doing pretty well. Fehr negotiated a luxury tax (which was not the revenue sharing concepts he had advocated) and random performance-enhancing drug tests (which he had previously opposed as a violation of civil liberties), and baseball has been at peace since then.
That's the background to the story that emerged on the Hockey Night in Canada's pre-game show (above), one about Fehr that was told to Elliotte Friedman and underscored by Fehr when he spoke afterward to Ron MacLean.
That story, told through a friendly foe in Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, portrays Fehr as someone who has a broader view of the sports industry today than he did in '94. Beeston told Friedman, "I think at one time [Don] thought about the players, first, foremost and solely. I think how he looks at them first, foremost, but not solely. I think the reality of the situation is that Don wanted to be part of the solution.
"We sat down and said, 'Let's not let this happen again. Let's learn from our mistakes...we can be adversaries, but we don't have to be enemies.' And that I think was the key. It went from an enemy relationship to an adversary relationship."
And Fehr told MacLean that since '94, "There's been far more labor peace in baseball the last 16 years than there has been in the other (pro sports leagues)....We did have our share of difficulties, but that was a while ago and we got past it."
"What the hockey fans should know is that they're dealing with someone who realizes the importance of the job and, the job is to get a deal done," Beeston told Friedman. "At the same time [his job is] to protect the players, but more importantly to grow the game of hockey. One thing that Don does understand...the more money that is generated by the game, the more money there is for the players."
That doesn't mean that Fehr and Gary Bettman will be vacationing together, but Fehr does seem to understand where hockey's business is, what it's about, and what it has gone through. And although he led MLB's players to strike in opposition to a salary cap and, less visibly, also advised the NHLPA for years and helped former executive director Bob Goodenow formulate his anti-cap outlook, Fehr made it clear in September that he is not looking to lead the players on a crusade to overturn the salary cap.
"All sports are different," he said. "The economics of all sports are different. The makeup of the membership is different. In the end, you have to make judgments based upon those kinds of things. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what works in one place works in another. On the other hand, it also isn’t necessarily true that, just because something doesn’t work somewhere, means it won’t work here."
Fehr went on to say that he'd engage in an analysis of hockey's central economic issues before taking a stance on how the NHLPA would approach the upcoming negotiations. And he'll also be taking the temperature of the membership, whose appetite for another work stoppage will certainly be an essential factor -- just as it will be for Bettman and the owners. You can bet that both agendas heading into the talks will include an assessment of how damaging another lockout would be to everyone involved.
Hockey's economic problems are tricky and there are likely no easy fixes. Unlike the NFL and the NBA, which centrally control much of their league business, hockey teams generate a great deal of revenue on their own. For each success story, there are franchises in varying degrees of trouble. If the negotiation doesn't shape up to be cap vs. no cap, it may be fought over revenue sharing.
That's something that Fehr has experience in as well. During the baseball strike of '94, he said regularly that the conflict was one that was more between the owners who couldn't decide how to divide their revenue -- the wealthy one who didn't want to dish out some of their receipts to their less fortunate brethren -- and their solution was to try to force a system on the players that would solve their problem for them. It didn't fly.
"There was no one with his expertise, and his knowledge, and his experience as an executive director," Maple Leafs player rep Mike Komisarek told Matthew Sekeres of The Globe and Mail. And after all the internal battles that the NHLPA has fought since the end of the lockout, the players now have a general who they feel can unite them to fight some different sorts of battles going forward.