The Chicago Blackhawks celebrate winning the 2010 Stanley Cup championship. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
By all accounts, the billionaire’s boogeyman, Don Fehr, is on the verge of becoming the new executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.
And based on the reaction – think Stand By Me’s ‘complete and total barf-o-rama’ – from much of the hockey world, you would think The End, as it was in 2004, is nigh as a mother.
To the easily alarmed, Fehr represents a phoenix risen from the ashes of Bob Goodenow – an iron-spined, fearless negotiator who will give specific directions to the short pier he wants NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to take a long walk on.
In other words, some people say, brace yourselves for another cancelled season once the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement expires in the summer of 2012. In the most recent issue of THN, my colleague Ken Campbell breaks down the CBA’s sticking points and examines where the two sides may butt heads.
But I’m not quite ready to begin packing and stacking non-perishable foods in a bunker to prepare for another hockey apocalypse. Right now, there’s no reason for panic, because there are too many reasons why both the league and players have little choice but to make nice and figure out a way to work together.
Let’s look at it from the league’s perspective first: Bettman and the owners already have the framework of a cap system that was their ultimate goal (that is, aside from filleting Goodenow and boosting franchise values). Sure, they’ll try pushing the envelope in terms of concessions on contract term limits and arbitration, but they no longer can roll out a one-size-fits all message of fairness and equality to sell to fans in every NHL market.
Now, that doesn’t mean they won’t try and gin up some cockamamie angle and/or Levitt Report arguing the current system still doesn’t provide enough parity among teams. (Any league that has tried to retroactively rewrite the CBA the way the NHL has does not lack for gumption.)
However, NHL fans have seen that old dog of a movie before and have to know it reeks as terribly as the real Old Dogs movie did. Any team’s year-to-year competitiveness has a correlation to its financial resources, but savvy management and consistent player development plays a far greater role.
Meanwhile, from the NHLPA’s side, a cancelled season makes even less sense now than it did six years ago. The players have been forced to accept a cap, leaving the imagination straining to think of an owners’ demand (other than the red-herring abolishment of guaranteed contracts) that would put them into DEFCON 1 mode.
Indeed, unless he is adept at finding 30 decent-sized arenas and 30 team owners for a new league, Fehr has to understand what he’s getting himself into. He and the union are in no position to get petulant.
That was always the biggest tactical mistake made by Goodenow: thinking a large group of millionaires could out-wait a much smaller group of much richer men – and at that, much richer men who pooled a sliver of their fortunes and built a war chest to mitigate against any financial losses during the ’04-05 lockout.
Unless former PA bosses Paul Kelly or Ted Saskin secretly left an even bigger war chest behind, that tells you all you need to know about the leverage the players have.
Ultimately, I believe Fehr will be good for a union that was humbled – Iron Sheik style – and is in need of some positive feelings again.
Fehr’s most attractive professional attribute may very well be his utter absence of long-term connection to any particular NHL player agent. That always is a running concern regarding any NHLPA honcho – who is he buddies with and whose best interests does he really have in mind?
With Fehr, the answer is clear: he’s got the entire group’s best interests in mind. His willingness to froth at the mouth and sink his incisors into Bettman’s bite-free neck is immaterial right now.
What’s important is that his presence guarantees a heightened degree of competitiveness between the league and players.
The way things were heading, Olympic boss Rene Fasel was about to step in and stop them from competing in the future.
One-on-one with deputy commissioner Bill Daly
REPORTER: Ken Campbell | PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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