Campbell’s Cuts: Second-guessing means Fehr may not end up as NHLPA leader

So let’s see if we’ve got this straight. The players are now getting a case of the humm-a-na humm-a-nas at the prospect of paying Donald Fehr the same amount of money the Toronto Maple Leafs will give to Colby Armstrong this season?

Actually, Fehr’s demands beyond the $3 million-a-year stipend have sent up a number of red flags amongst the rank and file. And for the first time since they basically anointed Fehr the savior of their organization, the players are taking a step back for a period of sober second thought.

It’s not really their style, but good on them for doing so. If they do an about-face and don’t hire Fehr, they will have frittered away what could have been a productive period with only two years to go until the next CBA negotiations, but that’s probably better than having the executive committee ram through an appointment that it doesn’t feel comfortable with just to save face (an apointment that is rife with conflict of interest, by the way, but more on that later).

The only question I have is; what on earth did the players expect? From the moment they emasculated Paul Kelly and kicked him to the curb, some of them have been touting Fehr as the cure for all the NHL Players’ Association’s ills. Players and agents have been downright smitten with the man who oversaw their baseball brethren for three decades and showered him with praise and accolades.

They basically made him a potentate and Fehr essentially told them, “If you like me so much, then you’re going to have to show it.” Bobby Hull did the same thing in 1972 when he told the Winnipeg Jets and the World Hockey Association to pay him a million dollars, only to shockingly have them comply.

Look, did the Edmonton Oilers chase Taylor Hall around for six months, then choose him first overall and shower him with praise, then offer him $550,000 a year? Of course they didn’t. If the players are surprised Fehr is placing all kinds of heavy demands on them, they’re the only ones.

Actually, Fehr has navigated this one brilliantly, looking all the while like the reluctant leader who needs to be cajoled into taking the job. First, he steps into the morass that is the NHLPA as an unpaid advisor with players immediately saying they should hire him if they can. Then he speaks to the agents last March and essentially has them eating out of his hand. He then basically rewrites their constitution – one that swings the power pendulum back to the executive director, by the way – and heads up a search for a new executive director that never really existed.

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By this time, of course, the players are basically begging Fehr to take the job, but he continues to be coy about his intentions. Then he hits the players with demands that start with a $3 million salary. Not only that, he wants to hire his brother as outside counsel on a billable hours basis and who do you think will decide when the players need outside counsel? Fehr wants to write a book and wants to work out of New York instead of installing himself at the NHLPA’s office in Toronto. He wants to start a consulting company while looking out for the interests of the NHLPA.

He also wants basically unfettered control of the NHLPA’s operations so as not to suffer the same fate as Kelly. And he knows the players have, once again, painted themselves squarely into a corner.

Well played, Mr. Fehr, well played. If nothing else, the players should look at the way Fehr has handled this and know he’s the guy to take on Gary Bettman in the next negotiations. It’s funny, isn’t it? They basically had a love-in with Fehr because they knew he would be an uncompromising force who would stand up to those who run the NHL, then they wonder why he would play such hardball when negotiating his own terms of employment.

Once again, however, the players have nobody to blame but themselves for this mess. Despite their insistence they want to be engaged in the off-ice business, the fact they thought Fehr would be their savior and fight their battle for them indicates that, as a group, they have neither the stomach nor the inclination to get involved in anything beyond what goes on between the whistles. As a group, they are pretty easily swayed – they managed to be convinced by the likes of Buzz Hargrove and Eric Lindros, for goodness sake – and tend to believe the last person who spoke to them.

But perhaps Fehr went a little too far in expecting the players to roll over and be patsies. The player reps will now go back to their teammates for input and we’ll see where that leads them, but their goal of having an executive director in place by the time training camp starts has just hit a serious roadblock.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His blog appears regularly and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.

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