The NHL had just announced that it was cancelling 82 regular-season games due to the owners’ lockout of players when NHLPA chief Donald Fehr sat down for a Q and A with Globe and Mail columnist Jeff Blair.
Among his thoughts? There is some merit to the concept of a soft salary cap and luxury tax – and just because the players did not ask for the current salary cap to be done away with in their initial proposal, which came as something of a surprise based on Fehr’s history with the only major sport without a salary cap (Major League Baseball), there might come a time when they put it on the table. And if you want to know why Fehr has stressed the need for discipline on the part of the players during the lockout – something even his harshest critics within Gary Bettman’s office admit he has done well – you need to go back 30 years to another labour battle and a school baseball field in southern California.
Q: Does the court of public opinion matter for you and the NHLPA?
A: Obviously the public matters. Those are the fans, the people who ultimately buy the tickets and watch the game on TV and you want to try and explain everything you can. You want to see if the fans can understand your position, that the public perception of the particular dispute is as close to what we think the facts and the circumstances are. If you’re asking me about public opinion in the sense of taking a poll of people who are not familiar with the comprehensive nature of negotiations and all the rest of it, and then negotiating on the basis of what the results of that poll happen to be? The answer is no, any more than you would if I was representing a reader in a lawsuit and I said: ‘I have no idea what your legal position is, let’s take a poll and see what they say.’
Q: How important is it that when this is all said and done, the reputation of individual players hasn’t been damaged?
A: It’s essential that the players be involved and be involved intimately and knowledgeably, that they participate collectively and make the decisions that need to be made. When you get into negotiations which involve dispute, there are going to be times when the conversation is more heated than you might like it and tempers might flare. I would be very surprised if anybody on the other side took off after individual players or tried to make them look bad and if they did I think the only effect that would have would be to enhance that player’s stature in the eyes of other players enormously.
Q: Why is the concept of revenue sharing so important to the players?
A: Three reasons. First, unless you have an enormous portion of your revenues centrally generated – like the NFL – you are a local revenue sport, and you have the likelihood, if not the virtual certainty, that you will have a disparity in revenues. In hockey, you have a wider disparity than in any other sport as far as I can tell. What that means is that the problems the owners complain of tend to be focused on the teams that have the lower revenue. So, the question is: Are the higher revenue teams going to be willing to help out, in whole or meaningful part, the weaker teams? You have to remember that if you get to be a team in the NHL, you didn’t just decide to set up shop and join the league. Somebody had to agree that you could have a franchise, they had to agree on the purchase price, where you’re going to be, what the circumstances are … what your capital requirements would be and what your lending limits will be. They all have responsibility for one another. The second point is, from a bargaining standpoint, when things don’t go well, where does the responsibility lie and where should those teams look for help? We think the other teams ought to be in the business of doing that. Third, one of the things that makes negotiations tremendously difficult is for somebody to say in effect: ‘We have teams that aren’t doing so well, so let’s lower salaries on the teams that aren’t doing so well so we will be comfortable with it. Forget whether any management failure had a part in it. But we’re also going to lower the salaries on the teams that are making very large profits by the same amount.’ That sort of means we’re going to pay the players based on the worst performing, least efficient, most undercapitalized teams. That’s not the way markets are supposed to work. Prices are supposed to be set by the other end of the scale.