August 25, 2010
"There is no public indication that there is the slightest interest on behalf of the owners in doing anything except fighting a war for the sake of fighting a war, of reestablishing their prominence, of making clear their primacy." - Donald Fehr, Sept. 11, 1992.
In "celebration" of Donald Fehr's apparent intention to become the next executive director of the National Hockey League's Players Association, as reported by Sports Business Journal, I took a spin through the 17-page archive of New York Times stories about Fehr's time with the Major League Baseball Players Union.
Harvey Araton's piece on the retirement of Fehr in 2009 is recommended for any fan wondering what sort of man would attempt to put Hockey Dumpty back together again. From the Times, speaking to former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent:
"Fehr and Gene Orza were just better lawyers than anyone the owners had," Vincent said, referring to the union's chief operating officer. "They won all the major altercations. It was like Marciano, 29-0."
And then Vincent, in a telephone interview, said: "They took care of the players economically and assiduously protected their pensions, their health benefits. They properly deflected all efforts on the part of the owners, especially in 1994, to break the union. If it were a report card, Donald Fehr gets the very top grade, an A, in every area except one."
That area was performance-enhancing drugs, as Fehr's fight for player privacy led to an era that managed to both save and irrevocably taint baseball for a generation. The NHLPA should be so lucky and unlucky ...
As Vincent said, Fehr wins. It's what he does. And it's not something that the NHLPA necessarily does, which makes this alleged partnership so intriguing.
Had it happened a few years ago, maybe the NHLPA would be thinking offense rather than defense in the next CBA war in 2012. As it stands, having Fehr in the room gives them a fighting chance at keeping long-term contracts, Olympic participation and other dwindling rights from the clutches of the NHL.
If he's able to miraculously achieve some semblance of solidarity in the PA, maybe the players can even fight a financial system that has many of its veteran members looking at tryout contracts in September rather than multi-year contracts in July.
For Fehr, the NHLPA isn't nearly the charity case many view it. From Mirtle's piece for the Globe & Mail, which confirmed that Fehr is an NHLPA vote away from formal appointment:
"There's a bunch of work to do," he said of the union at the time. "Having said that, this is not like starting from scratch. This is not an organization that does not have very significant strengths. It is an organization that has, I believe, a membership that is ready and willing and interested in making things right so that it's an effective voice for the players."
As hockey fans, many of us are dreading another work-stoppage, because with each passing skirmish between the players and the NHL is seems more likely. The Donald and Gary Show might produce some high drama in public dialogue -- Tim Panaccio tweeted Scott Hartnell(notes) as sayind "Don Fehr at our helm ... he is probably the last guy [Bettman] wants in that position." -- but it could just as easily produce another crippling moment for the NHL's momentum.
If nothing else, hopefully Fehr's presence turns this into a negotiation rather than the NHL attempting to choke the last breaths out of the PA.