NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr is masterful at frustrating his opponents in collective bargaining via mind games. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
With the lockout on the verge of entering its third month, the Fehr Factor has entered negotiations in a big way. That much has become crystal clear with the NHL’s rising level of frustration in recent days. Negotiating with someone as intelligent and canny as Donald Fehr is difficult at the best of times. The NHL is finding out that when it comes to tactics, one of Fehr’s is to push the buttons of the guys on the other side of the table.
What the league is seeing is Fehr at his absolute best. Several times, he has delayed bargaining sessions with the league. He will occasionally “forget” his notes and get up and leave the table in the middle of an important discussion. This might give him the aura of an absent-minded professor, but chances are it’s all an orchestrated effort designed to frustrate. And by all accounts, it has been a smashing success of late.
And who can blame Fehr for doing that at this point? Are Fehr’s negotiating tactics any more counterproductive to the process than the NHL opening talks with an initial offer that could only be described as laughable? Is it any worse than taking a quick look at a counterproposal and summarily dismissing it within 10 minutes, the way the NHL did in mid-October when the two sides seemed to be gaining some traction?
What people have to realize is Donald Fehr has one concern and one concern only, and that is to get the best deal for his constituents. The only problem is the best deal has quickly become the least-worst deal. As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, there is not a single area in the NHL’s demands that represents anything less than a concession on the part of the players. The NHL is standing firm in its demands, as it should. And the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association is digging in his heels, as he should.
And for those who think the players should simply cut the best deal they can get and get on with playing, consider for a moment what that would mean. The fact neither side of this dispute wants to wear the tag of loser has absolutely nothing to do with ego and everything to do with preserving the collective bargaining rights for future players. If the league is successful in getting everything it demands in these negotiations and the players cave just to get back to playing, what will stop it from making even more onerous demands the next time and the time after that?
“I know those guys, Shane Doan and all those guys,” says former NHLer Curtis Joseph. “They’re good guys. They’re good, smart human beings. If it’s not good for everybody, it must not be a great deal. The average career of a hockey player is five years. Do you think these guys want to give away 20 percent of their earnings? No way. None of them does.”
After months of playing the part of conciliator, Fehr is beginning to show his legendary teeth. And that’s probably not a good sign for anyone who hopes to see the NHL in action in the foreseeable future. The more the NHLPA rattles the league’s cage, the more emotional this dispute is going to become. If the players remain strong, they stand to lose an entire season worth of salaries. If they cave, they stand to lose their credibility and a lot of their leverage as a bargaining unit.
Neither one of those is particularly appealing for them. So they and their leader are doing the only thing they can do now. As Michael Cammalleri said early in this process, the players have already lost. But they will not go down without a fight.
Still with Curtis Joseph, he’s clearly among those who believe that if the NHL is concerned with revenues, it has to get teams into places where fans will create wealth for the league. “My beef would be, ‘Listen, put another team in Ontario,’ ” he says. “Are you kidding me? Turn that $50 million loss into a win. Why don’t you do that. Talk to me about that. That’s what I would say.”… Organizers at the Sportcard and Memorabilia Expo in Toronto report attendance was down 30 percent this past weekend because of the NHL lockout…The Brampton Battalion is on its way out and the Mississauga Steelheads cannot be far behind. Case in point was last Friday night. The Steelheads went into their game against a division rival with an 11-5-1 record and drew an announced crowd of 2,144 that looked a lot smaller than that. Two days later for a Sunday afternoon game, they had an announced throng of 1,614. The total of 3,758 would be a decent crowd for one game for most junior teams, but for two games during a season when there’s no NHL hockey, it’s pathetic. Steelheads ownership has given the franchise three seasons to turn things around and there is absolutely no evidence anything like that will happen…It's clear there is simply too much fighting in car racing. As a matter of fact, there have been more bench-clearing brawls in NASCAR this season than in the NHL.
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.