Given the perception many people have of Don Fehr, there’s an enormous amount of irony in the fact that his appointment as executive director of the NHL Players’ Association might just be what ensures extended labor peace in hockey.
Here’s why. There was a real feeling in the hockey world that until Fehr’s appointment, the NHLPA was ripe for pillaging. With either Ted Saskin or Paul Kelly running the union’s affairs, the sentiment was that the NHL was going to come after the NHLPA in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement fangs-first.
That’s not going to happen with Fehr. With the exception of his mentor and predecessor at the Major League Baseball Players’ Association Marvin Miller, Fehr is the most powerful and accomplished labor leader in the history of sport. This will likely force the NHL to be a little less aggressive and more realistic in its demands.
And Fehr, whose appointment was announced Saturday, has gotten off to a good start. There are those who will paint him as a confrontational rabble-rouser, but Fehr was sounding very conciliatory, both with his new constituents and opponents, in the days leading up to the announcement of his appointment.
“What I’d like to really get a grasp on is what the future of the industry looks like and what it could be,” Fehr told THN.com. “Because if you can end up with some sort of a shared goal or a shared sense of the future of the enterprise that everyone wants to work towards, at least you know where you want to go and that’s a big step. Whether or not that’s achievable, I can’t tell you tell you. All I can tell you is that’s something I want to educate myself on enough to make a judgment about it.”
If anything, Fehr could be accused of being a little naive on this one. One of the foundations of the present CBA was that it was supposed to represent an equal partnership between the players and owners, but in reality there has been no sense of a common goal at all. In fact, when Kelly got the job, one of the first things he said was that anyone who thought there was a true partnership between the players and the league was “smoking something.”
Again, Fehr was much more careful in his words on that subject.
“There are legal definitions of partnership and then there are other definitions,” Fehr said. “I think we’re in the other.”
As far as the partnership between the players and their leader, Fehr comes into the office with an advantage Kelly never had. It was also announced Saturday that the NHLPA voted overwhelmingly to adopt a new constitution, which is the final repudiation of the Eric Lindros/Ian Penny debacle that cut Kelly at the knees. The new constitution, crafted largely by Fehr, gives the executive director far more power to make decisions.
So for the first time in its history, the NHLPA may actually have an executive director retire of his own volition. The feeling is that Fehr likely won’t stay on long after the next CBA is completed.
In addition, Fehr got everything he demanded, from being able to work primarily out of New York to the right to use his brother Steve on retainer as legal counsel to a $3 million yearly salary to the freedom to do consulting work and write a book.
“Ink on paper doesn’t do the job for you, but the structure is basically there,” Fehr said of the new constitution. “But it’s the job of the director and, derivatively, the staff to maintain the confidence of the players. And that means, by the way, that you don’t order issues or directives. The authority works the other way.”
Without a doubt, though, Fehr’s most monumental task will be reviving the spirit of the NHLPA. The dysfunction the union has experienced since the lockout has left many players isolated, disillusioned and disengaged. From the firing of Goodenow to the hiring of Saskin and the firing of Kelly (whew), most of the important decisions to this point have been made by a cabal of vocal militants within the ranks. Fehr seeks to have a lot more consensus moving forward.
“As a result of what happened at the end of the lockout and the internal political convulsions that happened over the ensuing several years, there’s a lot of difficultly and trauma in the organization that got in the way of it functioning in an appropriate manner,” Fehr said. “The way a union is successful is to have a knowledgeable, participating, cohesive unified membership. That means that they not only have to have a say, but they basically have to have the say.”
The salary cap is here to stay, so nobody is naive enough to think Fehr will get that particular gob of toothpaste back in the container. For the NHLPA, the next round of CBA talks will be all about retaining what they have and limiting their losses.
It will be paramount for Fehr to approach them with an open mind. Judging by the tone he has taken in his first official day in office, he’s off to a good start.
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