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NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Dennis Cook (Dennis Cook)
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Dennis Cook (Dennis Cook)

USUAL SUSPECTS

Fehr and loathing ahead in NHL contract bargaining Add to ...

Before looking forward to 2012, Usual Suspects would like to dislocate a shoulder as we pat ourselves on the back for our 2011 prognostication: “The biggest Canadian sports story in the coming year [2011]will be played off the fields and rinks as Rogers Communications and CTV/TSN size each other up in the wake of some unprecedented managerial shuffles in 2010. Can they co-exist – as they did for the Vancouver Olympics – or will we see the start of a war for rights and control of the next NHL, CFL and FIFA World Cup TV rights packages?”

Co-exist they did, buying (along with Larry Tanenbaum) the controlling interest in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in December. Yes, CTV and TSN launched a radio station, TSN 1050, to compete with newly renamed Sportsnet Radio 590 The Fan in Toronto. The sides poached talent and made angry noises. But on the biggest transaction, MLSE, they exchanged vows to never part. No doubt there will be aftershocks along the fault line of this happy union, but it should recede into just biz-a-ness this year.

So what will replace the media marriage as the sports media talking point of 2012 in Canada? What name will be on the lips of every media savant this year?

Donald Fehr. Or, more specifically, the collective agreement between the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association that expires Sept. 15, 2012. Among the possible proposals will be a rollback of the players’ revenue share and a term limit on contracts. The future of NHL participation at the Olympics will be debated. And that’s just the first day.

For those just joining us from a long-term coma, previous bargaining between the owners and players has gone about as well as the Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries marriage. So should this attempt by management to blame the work force for the Phoenix Coyotes turn out any different?

That answer would be Fehr, the new executive director of the NHLPA. When he first took over the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1986, Fehr was like Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes. His acid tongue and uber-disciplined approach took the MLBPA into and out of a number of labour stoppages, including the cancellation of the second half of the 1994 season and World Series. But his union always avoided a salary cap and came out stronger and more disciplined.

So we should be expecting to lose another NHL season, right? Not exactly. Toward the end of his tenure at the MBLPA, Fehr settled a significant new contract with Major League Baseball before the expiry date of the previous deal. He became a man you could talk to – so long as you knew that he thought salary cap is a curse word. Who then will NHL owners see: the Fehr Factor or The Don, who makes you an offer you can’t refuse?

Despite Fehr’s reputation, NHL owners respect Fehr’s résumé and don’t have the grudge they did against Bob Goodenow, the NHLPA executive director during the 2004-05 lockout disaster. They know Fehr’s membership still includes several prominent players who went behind Goodenow’s back during the lockout, effectively cutting his throat, and still others who shanked Paul Kelly, Fehr’s predecessor in the NHLPA hot seat. (Because Fehr actually consulted with the former rebels, he’ll know them personally.) Crucially, the owners know he’s not of the hockey culture.

Bur Fehr will also understand the weaknesses in a large-market ownership that played loyal last time only to get whacked by certain provisions in the collective agreement. He has seen the $2.1-billion (U.S.) in U.S. TV money and other revenue streams grow. Which could make him a man to dispassionately parlay with on issues – so long as he’s able to ride the membership tiger.

Owners are preparing lots of giveback demands to rile players and test Fehr’s mettle. There will be dark days when TSN analyst Bob McKenzie shrugs his shoulders and says, “Who knows?” But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman knows he has no mulligan with the public or media this time. He must get this collective agreement done on time or risk losing the 24/7 HBO and Winter Classic momentum – and tarnishing his own reputation.

For all these reasons and more, Usual Suspects says take it to the bank: There will be a collective agreement before its time in 2012.

REFS ROAR BACK

Apparently Usual Suspects isn’t the only one to notice ESPN analyst Jon Gruden’s inability to grasp the NFL rule book. After we noted on globesports.com Gruden’s befuddlement over a roughing call, former head NFL supervisor of officials and now Fox analyst Mike Pereira took issue with Gruden ripping referees in the Atlanta Falcons-New Orleans Saints game last Monday for not knowing a head shot from slap shot.

“I am not a fan of Gruden’s,” Pereira wrote on his Fox blog. “Not today, not yesterday, not when I worked for the NFL and not when I was working on the field as a side judge. He was a loudmouth as a coach who constantly disrespected officials and he is a blowhard in the broadcast booth who spouts off when he doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

“Gruden said he doesn’t understand how games are being officiated? Correctly and consistently in this case. But that’s okay, Jon. Just throw the officials under the bus when you don’t know the rules. Officials are often criticized and, sometimes, deservedly so. Not in this case, however. It is Gruden who deserves the criticism. C’mon man! I enjoy that feature done by ESPN’s studio hosts. Let’s see if they have the courage this week to shout, ‘C’mon man, learn the rules’ to Jon Gruden.”

GRAPES SYMPHONY

In a year in which he hit more sour notes than usual, here’s Don Cherry at the discordant keyboard.

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