After months of political manoeuvring and speculation… and pending ratification, Donald Fehr appears primed to formally take office as the Executive Director of the NHLPA with the Ilya Kovalchuk saga providing an appropriate backdrop. Despite having earlier dismissed himself as a candidate for the role, the former MLBPA hardliner is now expected to spearhead the players union through the next series of collective bargaining negotiations in 2012.
Either a spectre to be feared, or a challenge to be relished for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, one wonders if the league office wishes it had treated the ailing NHLPA with kid gloves following the late, late night coup that saw former figurehead Paul Kelly overthrown in August 2009.
Instead, driving home the advantage the league has had in lieu of notable leadership amongst the union’s rank and file, the Kovalchuk saga and the subsequent fallout concerning the leagues ongoing investigation of similarly structured deals has stirred the NHLPA to fast forward its agenda and install a tough and experienced sports negotiator.
To say the appointment is grounds for concern for hockey’s most valuable commodity; its fans, would be an understatement. Fehr has a track record of negotiating hard for his union members illustrated by his headline involvement in the now infamous Major League Baseball strike of 94-95 which saw that season shut down midterm, ultimately locking out the World Series for the first time in 90 years.
With Fehr set to become the third union leader in five years, the NHLPA has garnered a knee jerk reputation after Bob Goodenow’s thirteen year career fell on the blade of the last labour dispute, one considered a pyrrhic victory for the league.
That reputation was reaffirmed when former union ombudsman Eric Lindros resigned, providing the catalyst for a series of events that saw the last director proper, Paul Kelly, ousted a year ago.
Where many players felt Kelly, a noted moderate, was too cozy with Bettman’s office, the unexpected collapse of Kelly’s chain of command left a power vacuum many hoped Glenn Healy would fill.
Instead the vehemently loyal Healy opted to return to sports broadcasting, taking with him several player backed employees and leaving few suitors for the job.
Ian Penny, who helped orchestrate Kelly’s blindsiding, periodically manoeuvred to the top but ironically succumbed to the very same 30 member executive board he contrived to turn against his predecessor.
Subsequently leaving the union in disarray, outsiders suggested the lack of political savvy amongst the 30 member executive board (made up of a player’s representative from each NHL franchise) was the fundamental issue in the PA’s disorganization.
In that respect, bringing in a figure like Fehr makes sense for a union in desperate need of direction. Being able to point to 26 years of MLB experience in the shadow of his mentor and master litigator Marvin Miller makes Fehr a considerably more resistant figure to the Sword of Damocles that has hung over the NHLPA hot seat since players began to feel the pinch of the hard salary cap and its escrow contingency.
And while focus continues to shift on Fehr’s part in the aforementioned MLB strike, those close to the Kansas City native are keen to point to the 14 years he worked with varying degrees of success alongside Bud Sellig during a tumultuous era for America’s past time.
Of course with the NHLPA he enters an organization in utter chaos and with precious months ticking down to the resumption of collective bargaining negotiations, Fehr’s first order of call will be to spring clean the NHLPA’s office and review the organizations system of operations that was widely criticized last summer without address.
How this manifests itself with a membership seen as largely apathetic with the recent upheaval remains to be seen, but the most obvious move would be to streamline the puppet executive board into a subcommittee whose chair would be in direct contact with Fehr’s office. This would cut away a substantial amount of mutinous and bureaucratic fat that has racked the PA in recent years.
Fehr will then likely canvas the members of the association in preparation for the next round of labor discussions, allowing the shrewd litigator to establish a program when he comes to loggerheads with Bettman in 2012 (or potentially sooner if the PA deigns not to exercise its extension option).
This second stage will likely prove a clear indication on the direction of the organization moving forward with the ever increasing involvement of player agents providing an unknown and potentially irrepressible intangible as union members mull their options.
The big story however, will not be the, if any, structural changes Fehr makes to the players association. With Bettman already straw polling his own constituency, many are anticipating a clash of the court room titans when Fehr and Bettman go toe to toe and in what many fear will devolve into a dogfight of egos.
With both Bettman and Fehr entering with winning records, the NHLPA see Fehr as a champion to be reckoned with, his tireless body of work includes nipping the MLB’s salary cap proposal in the bud and hiking the average player wage by over 1,000% during his tenure as MLBPA head, a figure that is well above the other major North American sports.
While Fehr is unlikely to attack Bettman’s ingrained salary cap in the same manner as the MLB’s, Fehr is bound to seek an compromise if the NHL targets further contractual rollback, an objective the league is bound to lever in an effort to tighten the last agreements loopholes. A mission theoretically accomplished by the decision of arbiter Richard Bloch against New Jersey.
Ironically for his part, Bettman could enter negotiations with a more disparate group than Fehr and the concessions he will be willing to make will not only be dictated by the league’s board of governors, but also by the detrimental shortfall the current hard cap has had on the league’s most successful owners. A plan which currently sees big market clubs bail smaller market franchises out on an annual basis without being able to competitively capitalize on their own box office success.
It could see separatism in the ranks of the board of governors with big market owners pitted against their small market counterparts with the sum total tying into the increasingly contentious PA issue of the escrow. A hornet’s nest that could precipitate a heightened level of contrition from Bettman as he tries to unite his employers toward one common goal… not giving up what they fought so hard for in the first place.
On the face of it, the crossover of issues provides a nexus for conciliation, the true concern lies in how far Bettman and Fehr will be willing to push their compromise with their legacies on the line. While history dictates another lockout could be on the cards, Fehr’s talents for negotiations in the face of a potentially splintered board of governors could indeed expedite a return to the one thing we actually care about… on-ice hockey.
In that respect, Fehr’s hard-nosed talents could be the perfect tonic if the board of governors resolve softens.
Originally written for the Maple Leafs Hot Stove.