Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we ask the Globe's roster of hockey writers to weigh in on an issue from the world of puck.
Today we turn to the new executive director of the NHL Players' Association. The union is a rebuilding mode after going more than 15 months without an executive director, and suffering through periods of infighting that date back to the last lockout.
The question: Is the former MLB players' union head the man to put this notoriously dysfunctional group back on track?
Sadly, it has to be said that union dysfunction has served the hockey fan moderately well. The dropped ball during the lockout year - remember how it was going to be two years? - led to a league realization that the product sucked and needed re-thinking. The "new" rules - really "old" rules finally being called - opened the game up and dramatically improved the entertainment value. It has slid somewhat in recent years -- defence are now once again allowed to interfere openly with attacking forwards on the dump-and-chase - but it's still a lot better than it was.
There remains much that could be done to improve the game. The rosters need reducing (what possible reason is there to have a fourth line in today's hockey?) and the long-term guaranteed contract needs killing - two matters that a strengthened NHLPA will never, ever allow. If hockey contracts were more along the lines of, say, football contracts, however, we wouldn't see these endless "retirement" deals that see the likes of Wade Redden making zillions in the minors and $10-million-a-year players like Vincent Lecavalier fading into near obscurity. The worst thing that ever happened to Ilya Kovalchuk is also the worst thing ever to happen to the New Jersey Devils: that 15-year-$100-million contract that has so far produced eight goals. Both sides are entirely to blame. But "performance" will never become part of a signed hockey deal so long as union and the league remain so stunned about the overall effect of the long-term contract absurdity.
Surely Fehr is exactly the right person for the job. Given how badly the 'PA has been run since the lockout year, it would seem any person walking in off the street could do a better job than has been the case since Bob Goodenow stepped down more than five years ago.
Fehr's test, however, will be whether he can right his ship without slamming it into the iceberg of yet another lockout.
Another lost year would prove disastrous.
It would not just be the union that is dysfunctional, but the league as well.
If Donald Fehr can't pull the NHLPA out of its apathy and disarray then no one can. Say what you want about his politics, his negotiating tactics and way of doing business: the man does what's best for the players. Always has. Yes, he's been involved in some nasty labour wars and a work stoppage in baseball. Hopefully, we don't see that again in hockey. But for the first time in more than five years, the NHLPA has a definitive voice offering a counter message to what we hear from commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL owners. And that's a start.
In labour negotiations, as in life, there is saying and then there is doing.
Donald Fehr is saying all the right things - that he doesn't imagine that a work stoppage/strike would be good for the NHL. He's right. It would be a nightmare. Sadly, the NHL and the players association have a long history of saying one thing and doing another. The last time out, the two sides lost an entire season - mostly out of stubbornness and intransigence on both sides. It was an endless game of chicken and neither side wanted to budge.
If they go into the next negotiations in the same mindset, the result will be the same as well. Fehr has a well-earned reputation as a hawk, thanks to his years running the major league baseball players' association, so his NHL counterparts - commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly - know he's not going to roll over and accede to every owner's demand.
Provided the two sides understand that negotiation is about give-and-take - you meet my need here, we your need there - it could work out. But there are issues even within the ownership group - the current system, for example, doesn't really address the issues of the small-market, below the Mason-Dixon Line franchises on life support, who see the payroll floor edge up every year, to the point where it is now past where the salary cap started five years ago. So the owners need to achieve a consensus on what they want; the players need to get their house in order with relative dispatch and the doom-and-gloom part of me, which has covered three of these strikes/lockouts in the past sees more bad times on the horizon. They just can't ever seem to get a pact done without first incurring a whole of self-inflicted wounds. Hope I'm wrong.