The NHL’s superlative agitators — think Steve Ott, Patrick Kaleta, Brad Marchand, Maxim Lapierre — use jabs, foul mouths, and questionable hits to do what they do best. Donald Fehr employs subtler techniques.
During the lockout, the NHLPA executive director has delayed meetings, repackaged proposals, and even used his own presence to affect negotiations with the NHL.
Like the on-ice pests he represents, Fehr has sparked a kneejerk response from the NHL’s most powerful parties: quivering anger and a temptation for action that, in hindsight, might be rash.
Like the game’s best agitators, Fehr, who was mentored by the late Marvin Miller, the longtime leader of Major League Baseball’s players association, has been an asset to his team. With each round of negotiations, Fehr has scratched back concessions for his employers. Fehr has used what little leverage he’s had to prompt the owners to cede gains to the players.
The question is whether Fehr has pushed too far.
Last Thursday in New York, two days after the sides agreed on having one of the most constructive bargaining sessions yet, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stamped out any hints of optimism. Bettman pulled everything off the table, including $300 million in the make whole provision. The sides haven’t met since, although they’re scheduled to huddle Wednesday. Even Fehr acknowledged the lockout would not be resolved in the immediate future.
Part of Fehr’s latest task is to determine whether Bettman was bluffing. To this stage, Fehr has convinced his union that every move by the NHL has been a feint. But with games canceled through Dec. 30 and a season-scrubbing decision required within the next 3-4 weeks, Fehr might have pushed the owners as far as they’re willing to go.
The NHL, according to Bettman, is standing firm on three principles: a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, a five-year cap on a player’s contract, and refusal on both compliance buyouts and escrow caps as the league transitions from one CBA to the next.
In their last proposal, the players had countered with an eight-year CBA with an opt-out after six seasons, along with an eight-year cap on player contracts.
It will be Fehr’s job to determine whether there’s wiggle room between the proposals or if the NHL will not budge off its the-hill-we-will-die-on stance.
Regardless of the scenario — compromise or refusal — Fehr does not expect to alter his approach of communication and transparency among his constituents. They are the underlying principles that have seemingly produced across-the-board solidarity among the rank-and-file.
Since he became NHLPA executive director in 2010 after a 1983-2009 stint in the same post with the MLBPA, Fehr’s objective has been to rebuild the organization’s credibility. By hiring Fehr to replace former executive director Paul Kelly, the players signed the ultimate free agent: a labor icon with no existing ties to hockey.
From the start, Fehr has emphasized communication and consistency in a measured and unemotional style. Any player, regardless of whether he belongs to the executive board or negotiating committee, can attend bargaining sessions. The NHLPA assumes the tab for airfare and accommodations. Players can access a mobile app for the latest updates.
Fehr’s talking points have always referred to the previous CBA, when the players accepted a salary cap and took a 24 percent salary reduction. Fehr has not been so prompt to mention the salary increases since 2005 that have resulted in an average annual player salary of $2.4 million.
Fehr’s firm stance has led to concessions. On July 13, the NHL filed its initial proposal. The proposal’s cornerstones included reducing player share of hockey-related revenue to 43 percent from 57 percent; eliminating salary arbitration; and requiring 10 years of service before a player can reach unrestricted free agency.
Nearly five months later, those action items look like April Fool’s jokes. During their latest round of bargaining sessions, the sides settled on a 50-50 revenue split, status quo on arbitration, and no change in service time prior to UFA. Bettman acknowledged the league had negotiated against itself in ceding to the NHLPA the terms the union is seeking.
Fehr’s response, however, has not been to acknowledge any concessions. Instead, Fehr has repeatedly said the players have made massive givebacks.
To this point, the result has been acceptance from standout to healthy scratch. Players directly involved in negotiations range from superstar Sidney Crosby to enforcer Kevin Westgarth. Publicly, the lone dissenting voice has been veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who questioned the slow approach Fehr has been taking.
“Everybody is behind Don Fehr 100 percent,” said one NHL agent. “He’s done a great job communicating with everybody. He’s breathed life into the union.”
Fehr’s approach to communication prompted the biggest blowup yet in negotiations. Bettman’s press conference last Thursday was partly in response to Fehr’s insistence that the sides were close to a deal. Bettman’s between-the-lines message to the players was the following: Don’t believe what your leader is telling you.
“The players are losing $8 to $10 million in salary per day,” Bettman said.
The sacrifice the players have made, of course, has been via their paychecks. Some in the league believe that Fehr, to use a phrase that’s become common during the lockout, doesn’t have any skin in the game. Fehr is an outsider who might not be on the job for long. The belief within the NHL is that once the lockout concludes, the 64-year-old Fehr will hand the keys to younger brother Steve. Steve Fehr serves as the NHLPA’s special counsel and is considered the union’s foil to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
The end is in sight. As the threshold for a 48-game season approaches — Bettman said he couldn’t imagine anything less — the sides are closer than ever.
Even Fehr doesn’t know the outcome. Last Saturday, Fehr addressed the Canadian Auto Workers Council in Toronto. At his speech’s conclusion, Fehr shared what he’d learned from Miller.
“In the end, if you really don’t have any idea what to recommend, or none of the choices are good, or none of the options appear to be tremendously better than the others, what you do is you trust your membership,” Fehr said. “They’ll tell you what the right thing to do is. All you have to do is make sure they know what the issues are. Involve them enough so they understand the context. If there’s any message I can pass on to you, it would probably be to reaffirm that which you already know. If you trust your members, you tell them the truth, and you involve them in the process, you’ll get about as far as it’s possible to go. You can’t ask for more.”Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.