By Jim Kelley
August 26, 2010

Nothing is final when it comes to decisions made by the National Hockey League Players Association, not even when they are announced as such, but if Donald Fehr is its next Executive Director, we have a two-word response:

About time.

Just how many kicks to the head was the NHLPA prepared to take before finding someone, anyone, who knows how to hit back? Fehr may not be all things to all people, especially hockey people, but the former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association is certainly tops any list of the best available men for the job, and the PA is clearly an association in dire need of his services.

As of this writing, there are still things to be done, including Fehr's formal acceptance of the job offer and ratification by the 30 player representatives, one from each team, which is never guaranteed no matter what the executive committee recommends. There's always the chance of a protest vote turning the tide or, given past PA history, even a coup once Fehr takes office. There's even a chance that Fehr may say "no" (highly unlikely, but no terms have leaked out yet, so even this is possible).

The NHLPA has been repeatedly hammered in media and public perception regarding its past practices. It has also been effectively leaderless since it capitulated to a salary cap after the season-long lockout that was designed by the NHL to overthrow Executive Director Bob Goodenow. (The league succeeded when the NHLPA ousted its boss after the cave-in). In a series of moves that appeared to be the direct result of infighting and player cliques vying for power, none of Goodenow's replacements lasted and, as a result, the PA has been not only directionless, but often battered by its so-called partner, the NHL.

The most recent beat down was mixed martial arts-like in its no-holds-barred approach. The league not only won a surprising arbitration that tossed Ilya Kovalchuk's dubious but seemingly legitimate 17-year, $102 million contract from the New Jersey Devils, the ruling opened the door for the NHL to control how the terms of a contract should be structured and revisit contracts it was said to have verified and approved. It was an unprecedented victory and it came in part because the PA didn't have the leadership to even challenge the qualifications of an arbitrator it had long contended was pro-league and anti-players association. After losing that fight, the decision to rally around Fehr became less of a contest and more of a necessity.

The Kovalchuk decision couldn't have sat well with the rank and file, the majority of whom know a threat to their financial goals when they see one. Longtime PA members remember how Goodenow would fight for their interests at every turn, including challenging the NHL on such basic assumptions as the sun shines during the daytime and it is almost always dark at night.

In selecting Fehr, a battle with more pliant members -- who buy into the argument that the players are custodians of the game and need to "get along with the owners" for the good of the sport -- has been won by more hard line faction that insists the owners are nothing more than the enemy and need to be confronted as such.

Fehr had developed something of a reputation with the "contest everything" crowd. You can see it in his fundamental dealings with Major League Baseball and his longtime association with Goodenow as a kitchen cabinet-type adviser when Fehr led the baseball players and Goodenow was in charge of the hockey players. The two are known to have spoken often and, according to some in the PA, Goodenow modeled his approach to NHL owners based on Fehr's tactic of never conceding a point without at least an attempt to get something in return.

Fehr has been an unpaid adviser to the NHLPA for nearly a year and appears to have been able to herd its various factions into at least understanding the problems they face heading into the next major collective bargaining negotiation in 2012 and the need to start preparing for it now. In short, Fehr has spent a remarkable amount of time working on unifying the PA just to get it to the point that it could recommend a new director. Now that he appears to have their support, it's likely he'll have to work even harder to keep it and build a base that will support unified union goals in the upcoming negotiations.

According to several sources, all of whom asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the issue, Fehr won the support of the executive committee because of his track record as a winner with the baseball players union, and his willingness to challenge authority. One went so far as to say the recent Kovalchuk ruling was the tipping point.

"It's hard to imagine that Bob (Goodenow) would have allowed that to happen and he (Fehr) is cut from the same cloth," a player said. "From what we heard from him, we felt we had to be more proactive in defending ourselves on issues that give the league an advantage that didn't seem to be in the CBA."

Fehr had directed the MLBPA through a series of contentious work stoppages including the 1999 strike that shuttered the World Series and did some serious damage to the sport in terms of fan support. He won a major lawsuit that claimed MLB had conspired to control the free-agent market, a major win for the union that produced some $280 million in damages and opened the door for solid player gains in the free-agent market. He also fought against steroid testing for players, a stance that did not win him friends with ownership and led to a delay in the drug-testing program currently in place in baseball, one that opened the door to sanctions from the U.S. Congress.

Even with those criticisms, the NHLPA seems reasonably united behind Fehr and that signifies a change in the union's stance regarding Commissioner Gary Bettman and the league in general. "We need to project a united front," said one player who is known to support Fehr but is not a part of the executive committee. "We haven't had that for awhile and I think the consequences of that have been obvious."

Does that mean a more contentious stand regarding issues between the PA and the NHL that still need to be resolved?

"Not necessarily, he said. "But we certainly need to send a message that we are willing to stand up for what we believe are our rights."

Given how carefully worded the responses have been to reports that the NHL nixed a second contract between the Devils and Kovalchuk, one can reasonably assume that the league expects to take on Mr. Fehr very soon and, perhaps, an attempt by the players to settle the argument over the league's authority to influence contracts.

Responding to a report in the New York Post that the league had rejected the second Kovalchuk deal, Bettman told media in Toronto that: "In order for a contract to be rejected, there would have to be a contract submitted. There has not been a signed contract submitted."

No doubt that's true, but Bettman did not deny that since the first rejection there has been dialogue between the team, the NHL and Kovalchuk's agent to garner league support for a deal. "I don't know if there has been such cap advice, what the specifics of it might be, and I wouldn't comment on it anyway because that's a dialogue we regularly have with our clubs," Bettman said.

Given that Fehr has a track record for winning collusion cases, it's understandable that Bettman would be guarded in his comments. It's a safe bet that Fehr would want to challenge the NHL's right to revisit contracts that are already in force or have been registered with the league. The structure of those deals and the fact they might be in jeopardy appears to be holding up a good number of possible free-agent signings with training camps set to open in early September.

I have no answer for this and I regret it, but let's start with asking the question and see where it goes from there.

If the Kovalchuk ruling went against the Players Association and the Devils because the structure of the agreement was viewed by arbitrator Richard Bloch as intended to subvert the CBA's salary cap restraints, why are the Chicago Blackhawks being allowed to "loan" goaltender Cristobal Huet to a team in Switzerland (not official, but likely to be announced shortly) for the sole purpose of erasing his $5.625 million cap hit?

According to a report on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website, Bettman said the move was not circumvention but "cap maintenance" that every team has a right to do.

Well, if the Devils were attempting to maintain their Kovachuk cap hit at around $6 million per season and violated no provisions of the current CBA in the process (a line Bloch made clear that the team did not cross), what are the Blackhawks doing? The money Chicago is trying to bury is almost $6 million per season for each of the next two, and in moving Huet offshore, they still have to pay the player his salary, but don't have to take the cap hit.

Where's the difference?

Can't help but wonder if the new PA Exec won't be looking to get that argument defined.

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