NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr is masterful at frustrating his opponents in collective bargaining via mind games. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The NHL players reportedly pay Donald Fehr about $3 million a year to run the affairs of their association. Given recent developments, all 750 of them should be tripping over themselves to give him an enormous raise. Somewhere in the range of double what he makes now ought to do it. Either that or the mother of all golden handshakes should Fehr decide to gallop off into the sunset and leave the NHLPA reins with his brother, Steve.
When the NHLPA hired Fehr as its executive director two years ago, it did so knowing it was getting the canniest negotiator in the history of sports labor, perhaps in the history of the labor movement itself. And Fehr has not disappointed his constituents. In fact, despite not having a single card to play going into this game, he has managed to take the league to the cleaners every bit as decisively as his predecessors.
It boggles the mind, really. A little more than three weeks ago, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said five-year contract terms were, “a hill we would die on.” So what does the NHL do in its latest proposal? It increases term limits to six years, seven if it involves resigning your own player. Compliance buyouts, an easy way out for rich teams to shed themselves of a bad contract, were going to be forbidden. Well, now each team gets one, meaning Scott Gomez can play out his career as the highest paid player in the history of the Alaska Aces.
A total of $300 million in “make whole” money, no contract rollbacks and a year to get in compliance with a $60 million salary cap were all supposedly non-starters. The NHL wanted its 50-50 split and it wanted it immediately. It talked tough for a couple of months and it caved…again. And just for good measure, it gave itself a 10-year deal (with an option for either side to opt out after eight), so it could have a really long period of time where the players once again are coming out on top.
There is no way of sugar coating this. Either the NHL has been routed or it was misleading everyone during the negotiations. And perhaps this had nothing to do with Fehr’s negotiating style. Maybe the NHL and the 30 owners didn’t have the courage of their convictions and were not prepared to sacrifice another season to win a war against the employees. In other words, they’ve capitulated in order to preserve a slapdash 48-game season, which is probably about the most hazardous route they could take.
Of course, over the next little while you’re bound to hear a bunch of clucking from the tall foreheads at the NHL letting us know how some owners are disgusted with the concessions they have been forced to make and how they’ll hold their noses in order to get the game back on the ice where it belongs. And if that’s the case, then they deserve the whipping they’re going to take. Either take a hard line and see it through or don’t put your fans through months of uncertainty and inactivity. If this was how far the owners were willing to go, they could have presented this offer in the summer instead of the insult they threw at the players and right now we’d be talking about playoff races and suspensions and the brilliance of the league’s superstar players at the halfway point of the season.
Perhaps the urgency of the situation was the reasoning behind the owners’ latest offer, but a good deal of the credit has to go to Fehr. He drove the league negotiators absolutely around the bend. Bob Goodenow was tough and unyielding and difficult, but the owners always knew where they stood with him. With Fehr, it was like trying to grab fish out of the water with their bare hands.
A recent “negotiating” session provides a perfect example of how Fehr operates. The league and the NHLPA negotiators agree to meet at 10 a.m. one day. Everyone shows up at the appointed hour, with the exception of Donald Fehr, who finally walks into the room at 11:15 and apologizes for being late. At exactly 12 noon, he announces he has a lunch meeting with someone in uptown Manhattan and leaves the room.
The owners, faced with months more of this kind of interaction, basically allowed Fehr’s passive aggressive brilliance do them in. It will be interesting to see what more Fehr has up his sleeve as the owners and players negotiate the details and exchange counteroffers over the next week or so.
But even if Fehr doesn’t gain a single concession off this offer, he has already won. The NHL was negotiating against itself and it still managed to lose. So we can probably look forward to at least eight more uninterrupted years of hockey and of the players laying a beating on their employers.
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. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.