TORONTO – There is a simple reason why the NHL Players’ Association needs Donald Fehr: It is a union in name only. It is not unified.
Broken by the lockout of 2004-05, bruised by infighting in the aftermath, the NHLPA has jettisoned three executive directors in five years. There is no one in charge. The union is being run by committee. It is not in position to fight, with two years left on its collective bargaining agreement with the league.
New Jersey Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) compared the NHLPA to a wounded animal this week at the World Hockey Summit, with the league smelling blood and sensing weakness as it rejected Ilya Kovalchuk's(notes) contract with the Devils because it circumvented the salary cap.
"It's an obvious challenge … to unify the constituency and be able to demonstrate that the constituency stands behind the leadership now, so when the next leader speaks, the people he's speaking to can be confident in the fact that this guy can deliver on what he's talking about," veteran agent Don Baizley said Thursday. "I think that's the big issue."
And so here comes Fehr, one of the biggest names in sports labor law, reportedly ready to take over and lead the NHLPA into battle. He led the Major League Baseball Players Association for more than a quarter century until he stepped down last year. His reputation is that of a smart, fierce negotiator. That alone makes him someone the players can rally around.
"I would think in that respect he's ideally suited," said Baizley, while stressing he had no firsthand knowledge of the situation. "Somebody with lesser credentials has to earn that credibility, and that will take longer. There will be a presumption of credibility with someone like Don. … Given his experience and expertise, it sounds like an excellent choice at this point in time. It's pretty difficult to debate those credentials, that's for sure."
Fehr, 62, has been working as an unpaid adviser for the NHLPA, helping rewrite its constitution. He had held several small-group players meetings. He has had at least a couple of one-on-one meetings with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. He hasn't dealt with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, but they have an informal relationship. They both sit on the board of the Sports Lawyers Association.
The question has been whether Fehr would want to take on this challenge. Now that he is being recommended by the search committee and has agreed to accept the job, according to the Sports Business Journal, the question is how that will affect the dynamic with the NHL.
"I'm not going to try to guess the future," Daly said, holding a copy of a newspaper with a headline heralding Fehr's arrival. "We've said all along they need a leader, and we'll deal with the next leader. I saw the reports today as well. Nothing's official. I'm not going to try to gaze at a crystal ball. We'll deal with whoever they decide to make their leader. That's fine."
The fear with Fehr, at least among hockey fans, is of another work stoppage. Fehr is obviously unafraid of conflict. He has presided over multiple baseball work stoppages, including the cancellation of a World Series. Bettman, of course, has presided over multiple hockey work stoppages, including the cancellation of a Stanley Cup Finals. The sides seem primed to butt heads.
Like Bettman, Fehr has a history of winning, for better or for worse. Baseball is the only sport without a salary cap, though it doesn't have the best competitive balance because of it. Fehr kept the players' privacy when it came to drug testing, only to have that blow up into a monumental steroids scandal.
Has Fehr learned from those experiences? Is he less eager for all-out war? Baseball has had labor peace since 1994. And do NHL players have the stomach for war, anyway, many of them having lost a season of their careers during the last lockout?
The NHL fought hard for its salary cap. The league wants only to strengthen it, as the Kovalchuk situation illustrates.
"I think it's fair to say we think the system is sound," Daly said. "It's done what it was intended to do and accomplish. It just needs to be tightened in certain areas."
Some teams are still struggling under this business model. Many don't spend up to the cap. Among the items on the owners' agenda could be term limits on contracts and giving the players less of a percentage of revenue. The owners hold Olympic participation as leverage, ostensibly undecided while the players openly want to go to Sochi in 2014.
Daly wouldn't get into the details, but he said: "I think the system is designed contemplating that clubs can be competitive without spending to the cap. I don't think that's a concern. But obviously there will be discussion about the range and what the range should be and calculation of the cap. All those issues are areas that will be discussed, I'm sure."
With Fehr on the other side of the table, the NHL, at minimum, now has a worthy adversary.
- Donald Fehr