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Can Donald Fehr keep his NHLPA from fracturing during lockout?

Greg Wyshynski
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When he's not a defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens, Josh Gorges is a Quebec labor lawyer.

Or at least he plays one on conference calls.

The National Hockey League Players Association announced this week it intends to use Canadian provincial law to declare an NHL lockout illegal because the NHLPA isn't a certified union in the eyes of the Quebec Labour Board and other labo(u)r boards.

Gorges was on a conference call Monday with teammate Mathieu Darche, attempting to put a human voice to an otherwise obtuse gambit from the NHLPA. "We want to play. We want to be out there playing," said Gorges at the start of the call and, conveniently, my "drink every time he says 'we want to play'" self-amusement. (I lasted exactly 5 and a half minutes before hitting the carpet.)

Gorges explained that if the Quebec Labour Board declares an NHL lockout null and void for Montreal players, they'll continue working out, start practicing in official facilities and — perhaps most importantly — will draw their regular, multi-million-dollar salary from ownership.

(That scream you just heard was Jaromir Jagr, suddenly regretting that he didn't find a way onto Tomas Plekanec's wing this summer.)

Has this move ever worked before for a players union in Canada?

"Oh, OK. I don't know if this has been done to this extent in past negotiations," said Gorges. "I know that it had been talked about, or thought about, but it hasn't been taken to these measures in previous, to my knowledge."

He seemed to believe that if it did work, that Montreal's coaches — who are on the other side of the battle lines, getting paid for not working in the case of a lockout — would gladly participate in the players' impromptu training camp.

"If they rule in our favor, it allows us to keep and continue to workout and train and possibly start camp and practice here in Montreal at the facility. With that opportunity with the coaches and the management, I'm sure — I can't speak for them — but they'd be on board with it. In talking with the coaching staff here, they're just as excited as the players. They want to get out there and get going and get playing," he said.

Wait, so the Montreal coaches would formally work with the players during a work stoppage?

"Like I said, I can't speak for them. I haven't talked to any of them about it. It is a presumption," he said. "Yes, I am assuming. So don't quote me on anything on the coaches have said, because the coaches haven't said anything to me about it under these terms."

Incredibly, Gorges' voice was still audible over the loud "BEEP BEEP BEEP" you hear when something backtracks.

We're not trying to be harsh on Gorges here, because he had a job to do and did it as best he could. But for an NHLPA that's rarely misplayed its hand on public or media relations, this was not its finest hour — a conversation about lawyerly things that shouldn't have been handled by an NHL defenseman.

Which brings us to the delicate balance the NHLPA must strike when the lockout starts: Making its players the heart of the opposition while Donald Fehr remains its stone-cold face, keeping them on message and all in line.

Can it be done?

One of the starkest differences between the 2004-05 fight and this year's labor tussle is the way Fehr has amassed his troops in a way Bob Goodenow could not.

His travels around the League in the last year educated and inspired his players. His constant swapping out of players in high-level meetings with the NHL about the CBA — George Parros one day, Ron Hainsey and Steven Stamkos on another — has kept several draft classes (and tax categories) engaged in the process.

On Wednesday and Thursday in New York, it's expected that 275 NHL players will be in town for the last stages before a lockout could begin this weekend. (Coinciding with the end of fashion week, and scores of runway models with time on their hands. But of course ...)

This is key for two reasons. First, because public sympathy is more easily culled by putting the messages in the players' mouths rather than having Donald Fehr as the salesman. And by that we mean, just have Henrik Lundqvist deliver a daily briefing for the next few months because swoooooon.

(That isn't to say some of us don't find Fehr to be an intriguing salesman, and a compelling speaker. But a lot of that is just appreciation for him being The Riddler perplexing The Bettman in every negotiating session.)

The other key reason: By keeping the players engaged en masse, Fehr is centralizing the power among the NHLPA executive level and limiting the chance that the NHL can, say, cut a deal with veteran players that undermines any sense of solidarity during a work stoppage (the word "back-stabbing" comes to mind, as does the date "2005.").

Another factor that makes me think there won't be a player revolt during the lockout: The League's best players have options.

Evgeni Malkin, Alex Oveckin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk have Russia. The Sedins, Henrik Zetterberg and Erik Karlsson have Sweden. Anze Kopitar can head to Europe. So could Teemu Selanne or Marian Gaborik. Sure, they all want to compete in the NHL, but they could be paid significantly in the short term in a place close to "home"; what pressure could the NHL exert to speed a settlement with this lot?

Then you have a collection of very famous players between the ages of 31 and 22 that are locked into contracts between 15 and 8 years. This isn't to say they don't mind losing money in a salary rollback, because of course they do. But they also have a bit more of a cushion on which to land than the grunts.

So it's Fehr's show, and he's run it expertly, from the players on social media speaking directly to the fans to the player proxies that meet with the press after negotiating sessions.

Frankly, the NHLPA has shown more solidarity in message than the owners have recently, with James Dolan and Terry Pegula saying more about getting back on the ice than they are about the necessity for a work stoppage.

Sure, there are going to be Josh Gorges moments when a smart player is over his head on the details and starts making guarantees based on "hunches." Or when Zach Parise takes a little run at Bettman. That's expected.

What we don't expect: The players to break ranks under Fehr and begin fracturing under the weight of a work stoppage. He's Maximus right now, bellowing for them to hold the line, and they're listening; it'll be a long while before one of them slips his shield and asks Bettman Aurelius for mercy.

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