Donald Fehr’s pedigree as a sports labour leader made him the obvious choice to restore order to the National Hockey League Players’ Association. But it was his status as the ultimate hockey outsider, as well as his tactical knowledge, that determined the course of negotiations on a new collective agreement.
Fehr was never going to be “Fehrsie.” He was not bucking for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame or interested in some future job inside the industry. He was, in other words, immune throughout the negotiating process to the extraneous noise from the so-called insiders and the fifth column among the NHLPA’s alumni, the former players who kept telling the current group to take whatever final offer was on the table because, well, they weren’t going to do any better.
Fehr’s reputation was more than enough to stand up to a ham-handed attempt by ownership’s negotiators to orchestrate a rebellion, based on claims he was withholding information from players – something he did not do during his 23 years atop the Major League Baseball Players Association. Hiring his brother, Steve, as his right-hand man ensured he was getting an unfiltered assessment of each situation while being represented by somebody familiar with his own strategy from their time together with the baseball players’ association.
And while he relied on the executive committee of the NHLPA – as he did in baseball – Fehr also wanted as many players as possible to make personal appearances in the negotiating sessions. He leans philosophically toward a big-tent approach to bargaining. He has the sense that many faces of the game seated across the table pose an issue for ownership, because once the name-calling and finger-pointing are done, the players ultimately sell the game.
This confrontation was destined to be a clash of sports cultures. Fehr, a Kansan of distinctly casual bearing, was a protégé of the late Marvin Miller who cut his teeth in nuts-and-bolts battles with baseball ownership before moving on to replace Miller.
Fehr led the baseball players through a strike that killed the 1994 season, which to outsiders meant he was by nature obstinate and tough and always aiming for the jugular. The bigger truth was his ability to strike deals with baseball ownership at the last moment, and in relatively non-dramatic fashion. That is why those familiar with his tenure as head of the baseball players’ union were not surprised that he didn’t use the disclaimer of interest weapon as early as he might have, because Fehr has always seen the nut of an agreement peeking through the usual muck and mire of negotiations.
Fehr is committed to the people who paid his salary – the players – which is why during baseball’s steroid crisis, he stood on principles of right to privacy and concerns about the logistics of testing and discipline. Mostly, he marshalled his forces and fought against a salary cap in baseball until the development of a luxury tax and increased revenue made it a moot point for ownership.
Yet here was Fehr, trying to come to a collective agreement in a sport with a salary cap in place and a commissioner, Gary Bettman, who was operating from the lockout-first playbook written by the New York law firm of Proskauer Rose LLP that had been used by the NBA and NFL.
Hockey has a different culture, and he noted that the players tended to be a less homogeneous group than in baseball – “we have players sitting in the same room whose countries have fought wars with each other’s,” he said.
There were suggestions going into negotiations that Fehr would put the salary cap on the table in negotiations. But he didn’t, not even to suggest a reworked, softer cap. Fehr realized two essential principles: that hockey players are like every other group of professional athletes – conservative – and that in a salary-cap league the best a players association can do is limit the ground it loses in each subsequent negotiation.
What will the future hold for Donald Fehr? Conventional wisdom is he has bigger fish to fry. It has been suggested he might return to the Major League Baseball Players Association, where his successor, Michael Weiner, was treated for a brain tumour in August. But baseball’s contract is in place until the end of the 2016 season at least. Fehr is an internationalist – a former member of the United States Olympic Committee, he has joked that when he writes his book, the chapter on the International Olympic Committee will contain the juiciest stuff – and has real ideas about how a true World Cup of hockey could function as a formal partnership between ownership and players. But he is also a pragmatist, and in the end that will determine his future path.