Donald Fehr and the NHL lockout standoff

After two hours of meetings with the NHLPA, Bill Daly stepped before microphones with a now-familiar lament following a day he didn't feel was encouraging:

"Until we hear from them and they make some movement or show some willingness to compromise, I'm not sure how we get this done."

Donald Fehr didn't attend that meeting, but struck a different tone in his comments to the media on Tuesday:

"From our standpoint you ought to be continually talking, even if you are disagreeing and not making progress, because you never know when somebody is going to say something that's going to spark an idea that will allow you to make progress."

Just because one message is pessimistic while the other is progressive doesn't mean they aren't saying the same thing: It's a standoff.

And Donald Fehr is as culpable for this stalemate as Gary Bettman is.

The NHLPA hired Don Fehr for a great many reasons — organizing the union, draining it of internal political squabbles, pissing off Bettman — but it didn't hire him to get a deal done before the regular season. That's like hiring Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to hammer out a peace accord.

No, they hired him to wage labor war while preparing them for the long haul. (Hello, Europe.)

One of the players' go-to talking points was the notion that the lockout was always in the cards for the NHL. Well, yeah, of course it was: First, because that's how NHL labor talks roll, and second because the players were too fat and happy under the terms of the last CBA to strike. A work stoppage was inevitable, because only then do we begin to reach pressure points and deadlines and fractures on the warring sides of the table.

It was also inevitable that Fehr and Bettman would go to overtime to settle this, as Jonathan Gatehouse predicted in his new book "The Instigator" on Bettman:

It is hard to believe that the mix of personalities could fail to shape the negotiations. The dynamic between the commissioner and Bob Goodenow, which went from hostile to poisonous, certainly helped write the script for the two previous lockouts. And this time it will again come down to a competition between the two smartest boys in the room. The fact that Bettman and Fehr are more alike than they are different is the wild card. It could give rise to common ground, or just as easily descend into folie à deux.

For the worried fans, the idea of a baseball guy squaring off against a former basketball executive to decide the future of hockey isn't a comforting one. The best they can hope for is that it will be a short chapter in an already troubled history.

It's not looking like a short chapter, despite unfettered optimism in some circles that this deal gets done in the next two months (raises hand). From Michael Grange of Sportsnet:

It's a theme Daly and the owners have been hammering at lately; that they're ready and willing to work toward a deal, except that the players won't talk about the important stuff, like how to split the money.

And he may have a point.

The players have stuck with the bones of their initial proposal — raises of two, four and six per cent over the first three years of any agreement — since Aug 14. They've offered concessions by offering the owners the opportunity to grow their share of hockey related revenue as league income grows.

But if the owners, or Daly or Bettman, want to better understand why the players won't come to the table with a new proposal even as the first two weeks of the regular season or more are poised to be cancelled, they can only look to history and blame themselves.

Grange goes on to chronicle a history of distrust between the owners and players on these matters, and he's right. Hence, if the NHL is looking for the NHLPA to budge, then the only that's happening is if enough players demand it, fracturing the union.

The problem is, this time, Fehr has created an base of support that won't easily crack.

From the Globe & Mail in September:

There are factions in any organization, but the NHLPA has a particular propensity for dissent and disharmony in high-pressure moments. It's a past that hasn't escaped Fehr's notice. Indeed, he said of all the aspects an executive director needs to master, "internal politics is the one indispensable thing."

So he has made a point of visiting teams, holding dinners, appointing divisional player representatives, and doing things like creating a software application that allows NHLPA members to receive real-time information and messages from Fehr on their phones. He has also courted player agents, the wild cards in any contract dispute.

All of this had led to solidarity far and beyond what Bob Goodenow appeared to have in 2004. As Damien Cox writes today:

The fact players in increasing numbers are fleeing the fight and heading to Europe every day tells you all you need to know about NHLPA unity. But this fact is also true; there won't be a mutiny this time.

Not because the players are any more dedicated to each other or the cause. There's just no way to make it happen, or no easy way, at least.

Why? Well, because in attempting to establish a democracy within the NHLPA, an iron-fisted dictatorship has been created. They toppled Bob Goodenow last time, tore down his statue in city square. Don Fehr, who knows Goodenow well, won't be letting that happen to him.

None of this is breaking news. Fehr's insulated power structure and his deft decision to involve a cross-section of players in negotiations are well documented.

But it's a reminder that when Gary Bettman locked out the players, he handed the keys to Donald Fehr. It's a standoff between two sides that knew it would reach the cancellation of regular-season games for months. Just because the NHL sounds a grim tone and the NHLPA sounds a constructive tone doesn't mean we're not watching two gunslingers, neither wanting to fire the shot.

Calling this a "negotiation" is inaccurate at this point. It's a staring contest.

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