I have been fortunate to be present when Donald Fehr gives us a synopsis of the hockey labour landscape over the past few years, five or six times this year. The Midwestern lawyer is eloquent, intelligent, disarming, dramatic and magnetic. He is a great listen.
If you allow me, I too will look at the past few years of the relationship between the owners and the players in the National Hockey League, and particularly the influence that Mr. Fehr has had on the proceedings.
As the NHL resumed in the fall of 2005, or as the owners call it “Year 1 A.G.” (After Goodenow), the players’ association was in pure and utter turmoil. The revolving door of instability and innuendo at the union gave us names like Ted Saskin, Paul Kelly, Buzz Hargrove, Ian Troop, Dan O’Neill, Ian Penny and the influence of veteran players like Steve Larmer, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Glenn Healy and Mathieu Schneider. Then came Donald.
And with him, came a semblance of transparency, unity, stability and ferocity. Quite simply it was “The Fear of Fehr.”
In fact, Donald Fehr did an amazing job transforming the NHLPA into the force all players had ever desired it to be, simply by being … er, well Donald Fehr.
With Fehr’s arrival, came his resume. Protégé of the great Marvin Miller, Fehr was a man who made his own mark through two decades of baseball labour. A man who helped cancel the World Series. Donald Fehr arrived, already a legend.
That, my friends, is the Fear of Fehr.
You see it’s my contention that it was the Fear of Fehr that had NHL owners clamouring for their leadership to huddle with Bud Selig and senior staff at Major League Baseball. What was he like? Would he try and bully us? Would he easily compromise? How can we get our message across?
It was because of the Fear of Fehr that the NHL quietly backed away from its realignment plan last winter. The issue just wasn’t important enough to create a scene, any scene, with the new NHLPA boss.
It was the Fear of Fehr that pushed the commissioner to tell the managers the summer of 2012 should be “business as usual.” There was just no way the NHL would or could give any hint of collusion with CBA talks looming.
It was the Fear of Fehr (and maybe of Gary Bettman too) that allowed owner after owner, GM after GM, to go on an unprecedented spending spree for player talent in the months following the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup victory.
And it was the Fear of Fehr that made league officials respectfully wait most of this calendar year for the NHLPA to make an offer, any offer, on key points of the next collective bargaining agreement.
Yes, the players did well in hiring Fehr. At the time, he was the right man for the job. And he certainly was the right man for the CBA that just expired. But that is history. That was then, this is now.
You see, Mr. Fehr’s job during the last term of the CBA was to ensure that no one could take advantage of the players; that the NHL couldn’t push the NHLPA around. He was marvellous at that. Those who claimed he didn’t know enough about the game were wrong. He was put in place, not for hockey purposes. He was put in place to improve and protect the lifestyle of the NHL player. The CBA might pertain to hockey, but it is not a hockey document, it is a business document.
For the past few months, those of us close to the game have tried to push the sports language into this business story, always talking in terms of who is winning and who is losing. But this isn’t about wins and losses. This battle is about success and failure. And as successful as Donald Fehr was for these past few short years at the helm of the PA, he will have to share in the failure if the NHL season is cancelled and the highest level of professional hockey in the world suffers financial damage. He will have to share his part of the blame if he doesn’t ensure the players are on the ice playing the game they love for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.
His job is to help all the players of the NHLPA get paid what they deserve to play hockey. And if they don’t play the 1,230 games of the NHL regular season, they don’t get paid at all. And while the commissioner and the owners should not go unscathed, you can put some of the blame on the Donald. His job was to make sure they played. His job was to make sure they get paid.
He, too, will have failed.
On a more light-hearted note, I was on the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast Friday describing the basis of my off-Broadway play: Gary and Donald: A Two Man Act. Still in its infancy, the play will have just two characters, simple spotlighting and a brilliant rhetorical script. I have decided that Kevin Spacey will play Gary Bettman and Harrison Ford will play Donald Fehr (Sorry Harrison, the earring will have to go!)
And with my luck, the stagehands will be locked out and there will be no play for a year!