Donald Fehr is best known for his work as the executive director of the MLBPA. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Unless we’re seriously misreading the tea leaves here, Donald Fehr will be running the NHL Players’ Association’s affairs through the next round of collective bargaining agreement talks in 2012.
Multiple highly placed sources from both sides of the NHL’s labor divide have told THN.com the past three days that the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association has decided he will stay on with the NHLPA as interim executive director, while both grooming his successor and shepherding the union through its CBA talks in two years.
And are you ready for a real shocker? There are some who believe the man who will ultimately be the executive director of the NHLPA will be one of former NHL players Chris Chelios or Mathieu Schneider. It’s believed Fehr will spend the next couple of years teaching his successor and building a team around him that will be able to provide him with competent advice on the business side of the game.
Fehr has been instrumental in almost all aspects of the NHLPA’s affairs the past couple of months. Not only is he leading the rewrite of the union’s constitution and heading up the search committee for a new executive director – can anyone say conflict of interest? – but he has spent the past several months impressing the daylights out of everyone connected with the union.
First, he essentially had the agents eating out of his hand when he addressed them in March. Then he blew away the executive committee – which consists of each of the 30 player representatives and holds the balance of power – in urging the players to approve the five percent growth factor for next season’s salary cap and to extend the current CBA to the summer of 2012. He was also on hand when the league’s competition committee met recently to discuss head shots and was – to his credit – completely silent. One person who attended the meeting said it was the first time it seemed the players were free to speak in their own interests instead of acting as extensions of the NHLPA.
There is talk all of this could happen rather quickly, as well. It’s believed the machinations are in place for a vote of the executive committee that could have Fehr in place as interim executive director by the time the players hold their North American meetings July 13-14.
So that’s the news. Now, what does it all mean? Does Fehr’s history with baseball suggest he will be NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s worst nightmare and that hockey is ultimately headed for another labor disruption in 2012?
Let’s deal first of all with what it means to the NHLPA. This corner finds it interesting the PA seems ready to coronate Fehr – and that is in no way a comment on Fehr’s integrity, which is apparently beyond reproach. But you’d think an organization that has been as rife with dysfunction and as burned by its hiring process as the NHLPA would not be eager to simply hand the job to anyone, Fehr included.
And let’s not forget Fehr is currently working on the constitution and if that isn’t a conflict of interest, it certainly creates the perception of one. From the people I’ve spoken to about this, Fehr has attained almost god-like status in the NHLPA and is seen as the savior who will deliver the union from the abyss. That, in and of itself, presents more than a few potential pitfalls.
Fehr, meanwhile, is dealing completely from a position of strength. The job is his to take or leave. He has spent the past 25 years building an incredible legacy in baseball and the last thing he wants to do is tarnish it all by being kicked to the curb the way Paul Kelly was. So you can be sure he’ll take the job only with the assurances he has the power and latitude to make decisions without having to worry about being knifed in the back.
Certainly, if Fehr has indeed made up his mind, it would be wise for him to step down as a consultant for both the constitution and the executive director search and declare his intentions.
Now, more importantly to the fans, what does it mean for the labor landscape? Well, Fehr was an instrumental union figure in three labor disruptions, including the one that cancelled the 1994 World Series – one the Montreal Expos would have won, by the way. Average player salaries went from $289,000 to $3.3 million under his watch.
The temptation might be to congratulate the players for essentially re-hiring Bob Goodenow, the hardliner whose turfing four years ago led to this mess. But that would likely be selling Fehr short. As a negotiator, Goodenow was a straight-line, unwavering bull in a china shop, a tactic that worked brilliantly until the last time around. And while Fehr certainly isn’t warm and fuzzy, it’s believed he can adjust his tactics and strategies in a way Goodenow was unwilling to do.
And there’s the matter the salary cap is already in place. Fehr successfully fought against a salary cap in baseball, but it is here to stay in hockey. And while the NHL has some very serious shortcomings in its economic system to address this time around, these negotiations won’t be the landscape-altering event they were in 2004.
And we haven’t even touched on the ramifications of installing a recently retired player into the top job yet, if indeed that’s what the NHLPA has in mind.
So with three days to go until free agency, the players might have more to think about than just the dollar signs.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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