When union boss Don Fehr speaks, the players listen. (Getty Images)
Talk to members of the NHL Players' Association, and you hear the same anecdote over and over: The players gather for a union meeting. They maybe half-listen, maybe whisper to one other, maybe fiddle with their phones, until executive director Don Fehr – once the longtime leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association – starts to speak. Suddenly, the room goes silent. The phones are put away. Everyone is all ears.
B.J. Crombeen, the St. Louis Blues' union representative, called it "almost comical." Jason LaBarbera, the Phoenix Coyotes' union rep, said: "As soon as he steps up, everyone shuts up and listens. He's just got this presence about himself. He's obviously a smart guy. I mean, he knows negotiations. He knows labor."
Fehr has the players' attention, and he has the NHL's attention – especially after skirmishes involving realignment and hockey-related revenue. In about a year and a half, Fehr has made the NHLPA much stronger, more organized and more assertive. That sets the stage for the first labor negotiation since the lockout that erased the 2004-05 season, broke the union and brought in the salary-cap system. The union was strong last time – the players did sacrifice a year of their careers – but the aftermath was ugly, and the lingering perception was perhaps even uglier.
"I wasn't around for the last lockout," said Crombeen, who entered the NHL in 2007-08. "But from talking to guys, I think that's the biggest thing. You lost guys' interest, or they weren't knowledgeable enough, they weren't prepared enough, and then things fall apart. I think that's something that we're really taking seriously, and I think we've got a lot of guys on board with that and really buying into paying attention and really understanding it as opposed to just saying, 'Whatever happens, happens.' "
For months, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have said the league is ready to negotiate, while Fehr has said talks will start sometime after the All-Star Game. The All-Star Game is Sunday in Ottawa, but talks still won't start for a while. The NHLPA still has work to do before the players can establish their bargaining positions, and Fehr feels there is plenty of time before the current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15.
"We've spent a lot of time going over the agreements," Fehr said, "and while it's safe to say that there are probably a number of general directions we're going to suggest to the players, I'm not yet ready to say that that process is completed or that there isn't other information we still hope to get that won't change our mind about some things."
That apparently is detailed financial information – the kind of information teams and leagues are reluctant to give player unions. As Fehr said: "A detailed understanding of the finances tells you the things you need to pay attention to, what your opportunities and what your limits are. … We've done a lot of work based on the information we have. There's still information we're going to want to go over – and go over hopefully jointly with representatives of management – which will fill in the pieces."
Fehr has long cautioned against extrapolating too much from his experience in baseball or from individual circumstances – like the realignment or hockey-related revenue skirmishes. But he has established himself as a patient, methodical and analytical leader, and you can see how he operates. He wants data. He is precise with language. He won't be pressured by a deadline. He will gather the players' thoughts and evaluate the situation, and then he will lay out the options to the players so they can make an informed final decision.
Sometimes a deal gets done, like when the NHLPA challenged the NHL's accounting of hockey-related revenue, forced audits and reached an agreement with the league to count $40 million over two seasons, giving the players more money back in their escrow checks.
Sometimes a deal doesn't get done. After the NHL board of governors voted to realign the league into four conferences and balance the schedule in early December, the NHLPA voiced concerns about the playoff format and the travel. The union asked for more information and felt the league didn’t provide enough. The union asked to discuss ideas and the league declined. The union did not consent by the Jan. 6 deadline imposed by the league, and the league delayed its realignment plan.
Maybe it wasn't the deliberate warning shot some of the media made it out to be. "I would like to believe that, in this situation under this contract, anyone would have done what we did, and I think it's sort of basic garden variety stuff," Fehr said. "I just don't attribute the significance to this particular interlude that a lot of people do."
But that Fehr considers it insignificant is significant in and of itself, because he considers this type of interaction "garden variety stuff" when the league clearly didn't, and it did relate directly to labor negotiations some level. The union will go through the same process in bargaining, only to a greater, more complex degree.
"It's communication," Fehr said. "It's education. It's feedback. It's constantly running ideas by [the players] on various things, and that's precisely what we did with realignment. Nobody sat in the office and said, 'We should do this and this and this, and here's the result.' We got the information. We went back to them. 'What do you think? How do you approach it? What's important to you? Do the playoffs really matter to you?' … That's a fairly easy one, because it's a relatively discreet issue with some, but not a tremendous amount, of moving parts. It's harder when you get to bargaining."
That's why Fehr has stressed communication, education and feedback – not to mention solidarity – since he took over during the first half of last season. After the lockout of 2004-05, the NHLPA suffered from infighting and went through four executive directors (including an interim) and two periods in which the position was vacant. The membership had too much apathy and too little pride.
Fehr stressed to the players that he works for them, not the other way around, and that the union can be effective only if they are engaged. He has engaged them so far. It doesn't seem to matter that he has no hockey background. To the players, it might be a positive – a fresh start, a sober perspective.
"He'll admit he doesn’t have a great knowledge of the game of hockey, but he understands this as well as anyone," Crombeen said.
Said LaBarbera: "I don't think you can go into something like this with a whole lot of emotion. I think that's probably the best way to negotiate – not with a lot of emotion. He doesn't have a whole lot of ties to the hockey community, so it's probably good for us in that aspect."
There have been meetings, conference calls, internal messages. The players seem to be on the same page. The players' opinions were all over the place on realignment before the vote; the players all seem to be saying the same thing now, highlighting the lack of information, playing down links to labor negotiations.
"He's got to protect the players and our rights, and if we have that right to look at it, it's good," said defenseman Nick Schultz, the Minnesota Wild's union rep. "It's a process, and I think it just needs to be done the right way."
Same goes for the hockey-related revenue issue. "I think it's just common sense that everybody should go by the book," said defenseman Niklas Kronwall, the Detroit Red Wings' union rep. "If it doesn't, I think it should be looked upon."
When it comes to collective bargaining, Fehr doesn’t want only the executive board or the negotiating committee involved. He wants the rank-and-file involved, too. Each team will have its own mini negotiating committee – "four or five guys getting all the information, reading it, talking about it," according to Schultz. Fehr will make a point to schedule bargaining sessions with the league so players can attend. If a session is held during the season, he wants it in a place where teams will be, at a time when players from both teams can attend.
That's how they did it in baseball, and they did it for several reasons. The players have the right to be there first of all, Fehr said. They can witness the exchanges firsthand instead of reading a summary of them afterward. They can spot concerns that the staff might not. And, of course, they can show the other side that they are committed.
"If you have good-faith bargaining on both sides, the process of reaching an agreement is a constant reevaluation of your position," Fehr said. "That's what it comes down to, and you have to have the players involved in that. I'm not employed as a hockey player and having to live under this agreement. But Joe Jones player is, and so it's in Joe Jones' interest to pay attention and be involved. It's in the players' interest as a group to pay attention and be involved, and it's in their interest for bargaining purposes to make sure that everybody understands that they're paying attention and they're involved."
The players will tell you, to a man, they don't want another lockout. But they don't want to give in, either. Crombeen said they have used the L-word in internal discussions, because they have to "prepare for the worst." They probably don't intend to fight the salary cap again, but they don't want their percentage of revenue to go from 57 to, say, 50, among other things. There are many other potential issues, such as the structure of contracts, revenue sharing and the supplemental discipline process.
"We're not going to try to go in and try to rob them, and we don't expect them to come in and try to rob us," Crombeen said. "We expect a fair deal, and we think we can get that done."
We'll see. The true test – for both sides – won't come until deadline time, when they look at what's on the table and decide whether their differences are worth missing games. But for now, the union is … well, a union.
"For us," LaBarbera said, "it's nice to have some kind of solidarity."
My take on Tim Thomas is pretty simple: He had the right to skip the White House visit on Monday, but that doesn't mean he was right.
Thomas said he made the choice as an individual. The thing is, he wasn't invited as an individual. He was invited as a member of the Boston Bruins. He had a contractual obligation to the team and a moral obligation to his teammates to be there. By staying away and showcasing his belief that government is out of control, he made a non-political event political. He made a celebration of a Stanley Cup championship about himself. He put the Bruins and even the NHL in an awkward situation, to say the least. He should have shown up, smiled and kept his mouth shut.
I don't buy the argument that Thomas or the Bruins should have made an announcement ahead of time, nor do I think it would have been better for Thomas to seize the opportunity to make a statement to President Obama. Had the media known in advance, it only would have added anticipation, and Thomas' absence still would have been the story. Had Thomas confronted Obama, even quietly, it could have inflamed the situation even more.
Thomas has been celebrated as an example of the American dream – a dream he said a lot of people "have kind of given up on." He was one of only two Americans on that team, and he was its best player – the winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player. He's a great story and in many ways a great guy. That's why this was so bothersome.
Just as you can love your country without loving your government, you can stand behind the president in the White House without standing behind him on principle. If Thomas can't make that distinction, then frankly I question his critical thinking. I'm glad he lives in a free country where he can express his views, but if he wants to influence hearts and minds, he should pick a more appropriate time and place to express them.
The NHL is walking a fine line when it comes to All-Star Game participation, but for now, the league is on the right side of that line. If the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin doesn't want to come because of his three-game suspension for an illegal hit, fine. Don't come. It's not like he's snubbing the president or something, and the Pittsburgh Penguins' James Neal – Ovie's replacement – is having a better season, anyway.
In 2009, the Detroit Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom were selected for the All-Star Game but didn't attend. They were forced to miss their next game, because at the time, the rule was that injured players had to miss their last game before the break to be excused from all-star weekend.
But that made things worse. Not only were fans and corporate sponsors cheated out of seeing Datsyuk and Lidstrom in an exhibition, now fans didn't get to see them in a real game, too.
The league was wise to get in front of the problem.
League exec Brendan Shanahan, a former all-star himself, has communicated quietly with potential all-stars ahead of time the past two years. Henrik Zetterberg was among those who begged off last year. Lidstrom and Teemu Selanne were among those who begged off this year. Better to have them beg off before being selected than afterward.
Shanahan also has revamped the format – with the players helping to pick the captains, and the captains picking the teams. That created a TV show, but it also added an element of fun and player engagement.
The reality is, the All-Star Game is less relevant and more of a pain for the players than it used to be. The Winter Classic is the bigger midseason event. The more parity tightens the competition, the more players are being pushed through the 82-game grind, the more the all-star break becomes more appealing than the All-Star Game.
So the league needs players who want to be there – and the vast majority still do. All but one of the NHL's top 15 scorers will participate this year, and the one who won't is legitimately injured: Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. No one needs Ovechkin pouting his way through the weekend, and even if he is contractually obligated to attend if asked, adding another game to his suspension wouldn't help.
If skipping the All-Star Game becomes a bigger problem, the league will have to find another solution. But until then, let it go. Maybe Ovechkin will come back refreshed and actually play like the all-star he should be.
Coaches often say they receive too much credit and too much blame, and Ken Hitchcock is no different as he deflects praise for turning around the Blues. They were 6-7-0 before his arrival. They have gone 23-6-7 since, putting them among the top teams in the league.
"I think that when the team isn't going well, it's usually a lot deeper than just the coach, and when the team is going well, it's a lot bigger than the coach," Hitchcock said.
What is different about Hitchcock, though, is that he also outlines exactly how a coach should be judged and when a change must be made.
"The coach's responsibility for me is in two areas: spirit and structure," Hitchcock said. "If the team doesn't have any spirit, that's the coach's responsibility. If you don't have any structure and you can't play defense and you're giving up easy scoring opportunities and bloody odd-man rushes, that's our responsibility to correct it. …
"If our team doesn't have energy and it doesn't have spirit, somewhere along the line, there's a breakdown. And when there's no structure and it's just 'drop the puck' and it's summer hockey or spring hockey or whatever you want to call it, that's our responsibility. We've got to take ownership there. When a manager doesn't see those two things, then that falls on our lid. We've got to be responsible."
See any examples of a team playing without spirit and structure, Buffalo Sabres fans?
1. Detroit Red Wings: The Wings have won 17 straight home games and enter the all-star break atop the league standings. They're going to need home ice in the playoffs. Have you looked at how tight the field is below them? Every edge will be important.
2. New York Rangers: Good thing the NHL selected goaltender Henrik Lundqvist as an alternate captain for the All-Star Game. He was made for the TV selection show. They should let him wear one of his sharp suits, not a jersey. (Oh, and he deserves the honor, too.)
3. Boston Bruins: For the defending Stanley Cup champs, this qualifies as a slump. They have allowed 19 goals in their past five games, going 2-2-1. They're 3-3-1 in their past seven.
4. St. Louis Blues: Not only are goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak both playing well, they are truly sharing the crease. "I think they've both fed off each other in a really good way, and it's helped," Hitchcock said. "It's not like a healthy rivalry. It's like two guys working for the team and learning from each other."
5. Vancouver Canucks: Cody Hodgson has developed into a contender for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year, surprisingly productive as a third-line center – a critical role for the Canucks behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler and ahead of fourth-liner Maxim Lapierre.
6. Philadelphia Flyers: Scott Hartnell might be Exhibit A of the type of player the NHL wants in the All-Star Game. It's a shame Toews can't play, but Hartnell is a deserving replacement and genuinely excited to go. With 25 goals, he needs only five to tie his career high.
25. Anaheim Ducks: New coach Bruce Boudreau helped the Ducks' spirit by getting rid of the standings board in the dressing room, and he must have done something about their structure. Though they are still out of the playoff picture because they dug such a deep hole for themselves, they were on an 8-0-1 run before losing to Dallas on Tuesday night.
26. Buffalo Sabres: If any team needed to win before the all-star break, it was this one. With a 2-1 victory over New Jersey on Tuesday night, the Sabres ended a streak of 12 straight road losses in regulation.
27. Montreal Canadiens: Can Randy Cunneyworth learn French over the all-star break?
28. Carolina Hurricanes: General manager Jim Rutherford is one to watch after the break. He has assets to trade, most notably forward Tuomo Ruutu and defenseman Tim Gleason, pending unrestricted free agents.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets: GM Scott Howson apparently is keeping his job, and he says he will be active before the Feb. 27 trade deadline. Several teams are looking for top-six forwards. Who's willing to pay up to take center Jeff Carter and his huge contract?
PLUS: Shanahan was right to give Ovechkin a three-game suspension for launching himself into the head of Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek. We've been waiting to see how he would handle a case involving a true superstar, and had he gone soft, critics would have howled about a different standard.
MINUS: Capitals general manager George McPhee does have a point, though. Ovechkin is physical and usually hits within the rules. He had been clean for 18 months suspension-wise, and how much should his previous history matter when the rules and standards were different?
PLUS: The Monster is living up to his nickname. Goaltender Jonas Gustavsson has tied his career high with 16 wins, and he has helped keep the Toronto Maple Leafs afloat while James Reimer has struggled to regain his form after a concussion – er, concussion-like symptoms. "It feels like it's going in the right direction," he said.
MINUS: Why is Brian Elliott the Blues’ only all-star?
PLUS: The Flyers' Claude Giroux was my midseason pick for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. He's still not a bad pick, but Evgeni Malkin gets the nod going into the all-star break. He has been dominant lately and leads the league in scoring. If he leads the Pens into the playoffs – especially in light of the Pens' injuries – he should win the Hart.
MINUS: The Sidney Crosby concussion counter is at 21 games.
“I would tweet something about Tim Thomas, but I believe Twitter has grown too big.”