SBJ/Jan. 10-16, 2011/Opinion

Fehr knows tactics at NHLPA’s disposal

Neil Abbott
The NHL Players’ Association has formally hired Don Fehr as its new executive director. The bizarre and unstable period for the NHLPA that began in the fall of 2004 has, at last, ended.

The hiring of Fehr will give the NHLPA the ability to counterbalance the power that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has exerted within the league the last five years, as a result of the leadership void at the NHLPA.

Fehr, the former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was hired by the NHLPA in 2009 to oversee the search for Paul Kelly’s replacement. The players ultimately determined he was the man for the job. Initially reluctant, Fehr was persuaded and will take the job on his terms and conditions.

Certainly no one needs to be educated as to Fehr’s qualifications and experience. He is no stranger to collective-bargaining agreement negotiations or player issues. Some may question his hockey credentials, but Bettman came to the NHL from the NBA without any NHL experience. Being a hockey neophyte does not seem to have hampered his growth and progress as commissioner. Fehr may not have known every rule of play the day he took office, but he certainly knows the intricacies of negotiating a CBA that deals with all the issues facing players in professional sports.

So what can we expect from Don Fehr?

History tells us he will approach the labor negotiations (the current CBA expires in 2012) in a cool and dispassionate manner. Bob Goodenow was viewed as a fiery and hot-tempered leader. The public perception of Goodenow and Bettman was that they had a very personal and abrasive business relationship.

Watching baseball negotiations during Fehr’s MLBPA tenure, which included lockouts, strikes and a lost season, Fehr projected, for the most part, a calm demeanor. His press conferences and negotiation updates tended to be businesslike and factual even as a season was canceled and negotiations were failing. No one doubted the resolve of the MLBPA, and Fehr seemed to steer a steady course and held to the players’ public positions.

If we accept the proposition that the current NHL CBA is flawed and needs to be changed, what can we expect in 2012? Will there be a strike or lockout?

Fehr is familiar with the tools and tactics available to the NHLPA and NHL. The NHL used the lockout in 2004 and set the stage for the season to be canceled. Goodenow led a strike in 1992, three weeks before the playoffs. Both sides know these are legitimate and legal tools of labor negotiations, and both options are on the table for 2012.

If history is a predictor, we can anticipate that Fehr will be very active and directly involved in face-to-face negotiations with Bettman. The stakes for both sides are high. The NHL faces many serious issues, including franchise stability, contract flexibility, salary escrow, television contracts, player safety and revenue sharing. The hard cap of 2005 has not worked; the poor teams are still poor, and the rich teams are getting richer.

One thing does seem to be clear based on what we know about Fehr. If there is a strike or a lockout, it will not be a result or consequence of a lack of effort or commitment to serious negotiations. The NHLPA and Fehr will spend the time and effort necessary to determine whether the NHL wants a true partnership with the players or will seek a continuation of the current flawed deal. Negotiations will not be affected by the personal (or lack thereof) relationship between the parties.

Fehr knows he works for the players and Bettman works for the owners. The goal will be a mutually beneficial agreement that both sides can live with. Whatever deal they make in 2012 (or 2013) will be the result of a negotiation, not the capitulation of 2005.

If the 2012 season is lost, it will be nothing personal, just business.

Neil F. Abbott (nabbott97@aol.com) has been a sports business lawyer in Boston for 28 years and has represented professional hockey players since 1981.

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