It’s not true that Donald Fehr doesn’t care about hockey or the NHL.
What is true is that he doesn’t care for it as much as Gary Bettman or Bill Daly or the puck-heads and analysts on either side of the labour issue, and knows the role that trojan horses have played in previous geldings of the NHL Players’ Association.
He cares not a wit about this alumni member with an axe to grind or that broadcaster or reporter with air and print space to fill who will plead for an agreement – any agreement – to get the boys back on the ice. Nobody has his ear.
Fans? He appreciates the role they play in the emotional and financial fabric of the game but does not spend a second representing their interests. It’s not his job, and unlike Bettman, who is more chief executive officer than commissioner, he’s at least honest about it.
No, the only thing Donald Fehr cares about as executive director of the NHLPA is the NHL players, specifically ensuring that they get the deal that accomplishes as many of their goals as possible and protects as many of their contractual right as possible. You can see now why Major League Baseball had a difficult time wrestling with its steroid issue. While everybody ran around screaming a pox on both their houses and this Congressman or that Congresswoman tut-tutted about messages being sent to kids, Fehr was the guy who had to make the necessary points about presumption of guilt or innocence and individual rights to privacy.
When this lockout is done – and, believe me, it will be done and the boys will be back on the ice by the middle of next month at the latest, because everything you were treated to on Thursday was a dog-and-pony show of competing public-relations ploys – the players will have moved closer to the owners’ ideal than vice-versa. That was guaranteed when previous incarnations of NHLPA leadership and NHL players agreed to a salary cap and escrow payments, because the institution of a salary cap ensures a permanent tilting in the balance of labour power by placing artificial limitations on salary and movement.
As economist Andrew Zimbalist told me earlier this year, when The Globe and Mail put Fehr at the top of its Power 50: “The results of these negotiations will be driven largely by ... objective financial circumstances, but it will be on the more favourable side for the player because Fehr is there.”
Going into these negotiations, there was much conjecture about how Bettman would be a different adversary than Fehr had faced during his time as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. And Fehr acknowledged as much recently, commenting about how baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s position as a club owner gave him a different view of his game than Bettman had of the NHL. Different battles leave different scars.
But what is equally apparent is that Fehr is also a different breed for Bettman. He doesn’t need the job. His legacy is established, and in a sport that doesn’t really matter to people in the United States, nothing’s going to happen here that will provide any extra burnish or tarnish. He knows that Bettman needs to look like a winner when this is all done, likes the Hockey Hall of Fame as a visitor only and, unlike his predecessor Paul Kelly, isn’t interested in sipping Chardonnay with Bettman in the expensive seats or a lifetime job in the sport.
For a sport that prides itself on beer-swilling, towels slapping in the shower, blood-on-the-face manliness, the willingness of the NHLPA to turtle in a labour battle has been remarkable. This is what they’ve reaped, but finally the players are getting precisely what they need. Somebody who is a technician; a professional negotiator first and lawyer second, who works only for them. Dry, detached, doctrinaire in some ways – and always focused on the kernel of an agreement in the midst of foolish noise.
When this is done, NHL players will have the best deal possible, and a more educated, involved players association with professional self-governance. That’s all Donald Fehr cares about. It’s all he should care about.