If the players get sand kicked in their faces in collective bargaining this time around the way they thought they did in 2005, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves.
Once the CBA was struck after the last lockout, the players spent a great deal of time and energy complaining that they had been taken to the cleaners by the owners. That was, of course, before they realized the owners and GMs would fritter away all the advantages they had gained by legally circumventing the CBA with every opportunity they had.
But before and since then, the players have largely been a group of complacent and disengaged millionaires whose only union involvement has come when it is time to either dismiss or stick a knife in the back of their executive director.
You get the sense things will be different this time around. Donald Fehr made it clear during his news conference after the NHLPA’s executive board meeting wrapped up in Chicago Wednesday that he expects a large contingent of players for every CBA negotiating meeting and is demanding the players take control of their own affairs.
“I expect it to be very large and very significant and very constant,” Fehr said when asked about the level of player involvement this time around. “As far as I’m concerned, any player who wants to come to the meetings, all he has to do is show up and…if he needs an airline ticket and hotel room, the union will pay for it. It’s their futures, they need to take responsibility for it. And I’m absolutely persuaded that they are ready, willing and able to do so. They should be.”
The early returns have been encouraging from the players’ point of view. A total of 53 players took part in the three-day meetings, including heavy hitters such as Alex Ovechkin and Jonathan Toews. And while the 31-man bargaining committee is heavy with journeymen and lesser lights, there are also some higher profile, high wage earners such as David Backes, Shane Doan, John Tavares, Shea Weber and Henrik Zetterberg.
Fehr was very short on specifics out of respect to the bargaining process and the privacy of the players, but unlike previous regimes, he also made it clear that the constituents will be free to publicly discuss the issues if they wish. In fact, Fehr made it very clear several times during his news conference that he works for the players, not the other way around.
It should make for an interesting dynamic if it holds. With the leadership not coming from the position of an omnipotent dictator, will the players be more willing to concede on issues in order to get playing hockey and collecting paychecks on time? One of the byproducts of their lack of engagement last time around meant that the players were willing to almost blindly follow Bob Goodenow, who originally told players to prepare for two years without paychecks. Only when the players decided they didn’t want to sit out a second season did talks begin to progress toward a resolution and before long, Goodenow was gone.
It’s clear Fehr is not a confrontational or flamboyant guy. For all of those who seem eager to paint him as the guy wearing the black hat from his days with baseball, Fehr has been nothing but level headed and consistent since being hired by the NHLPA. He refuses to publicly discuss any conversations he has with players and will not make any bold proclamations of what will transpire in bargaining. And that might be a good thing, because the less that is made public this summer about the negotiations, the better they’ll be going. But Fehr did basically say that the players are in no mood for making huge concessions, not at a time when the league sends out a post-season release boasting $3.2 billion in revenues, up 18 percent from last season and, by its own calculations, up 195 percent from 2003-04.
“Obviously, it’s there. It’s real,” Fehr said. “Look, if revenues were flat at the level that they were in 2004, everyone…would understand that we would be likely having different discussions than since they’ve gone up.”
Fehr said earlier this week that Sept. 15 is not a “magic date,” when it comes to the process, leading some to believe that the NHLPA might be willing to start training camp and the season without an agreement in place. Fehr clarified Wednesday that he was simply stating a fact of law. But it’s a moot point since the league has almost no interest in going ahead without a new agreement.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly cautioned to see how negotiations progress over the summer.
“Having said that,” Daly said in an email to THN.com, “deferring negotiations and ultimate agreement is not a model that has worked particularly well for this league in the past.”
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.