For Donald Fehr’s previous employers, hits were the competitive coin of the realm. They can be career-ending for his new constituents in the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
Fehr, executive director of the NHLPA, is No. 1 on The Globe and Mail’s Power 50 for 2012, because of the significance accorded negotiations on a new collective agreement with the National Hockey League, and because his reputation after leading the Major League Baseball Players Association for 23 years suggests NHL commissioner Gary Bettman might not want to assume any more that he is the brightest guy in the room.
The current collective agreement expires Sept. 15.
Make no mistake, economic issues will dominate collective bargaining, with owners attempting to claw back more hockey-related revenue from the players. That, plus the need to restore integrity and unity to an organization that went through three leaders in five years, is why the NHLPA hired Fehr, a 63-year-old native of Prairie Village, Kan. It did not hire him to be a point man on concussions or formulate some big-picture response to what has become the defining issue for a generation of hockey players, whether or not they realize it.
As the former head of the baseball players’ union, Fehr stood for privacy principles in fighting drug testing. Concussions present an issue that is not as clear-cut. Fehr’s instinct is to follow his constituency’s lead, and in an interview in the NHLPA’s offices in Toronto last month, he made it clear he believes collective bargaining is only one area in which the issue can play out. His prescription is co-operation, through the NHL’s concussion working group and the competition committee.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fehr sees his role as representative, as opposed to taking grand stands for public consumption, and professional athletes, regardless of sport, are a conservative group, unwilling to make what seem to be relatively logical changes – wearing helmets during pregame warm-ups, or visors or batting helmets with ear-flaps – because the existing system is the one they know best.
That includes players who owe their position to their ability to inflict physical damage on opponents, something Fehr never had to deal with in the baseball players’ union. “Different players view physical interaction differently, depending on experience, age and what their role is,” he explained.
That’s not the only difference in constituencies. Fehr has found European hockey players, for example, tend not to be of one mind as much as Latin-American baseball players. Hockey players are also a younger group, and more likely to feel bulletproof.
In public statements, Fehr has made the link between baseball’s labour peace and the absence of a salary cap, suggesting to many that he will push for an overhauled system of revenue sharing and a luxury tax in the NHL. That will be a tough sell to owners.
What might be an easier sell – and this will come as a blow to a generation of hockey fans who have become used to NHL players in the Olympics – is the notion of a World Cup of hockey, modelled on the joint partnership that resulted in the World Baseball Classic. Fehr is a former member of the United States Olympic Committee, which has given him a respect for, and a wariness of, the International Olympic Committee.
“To the extent that we are able with the NHL to work out agreements that are consistent in the operation of the league that year, then that’s great,” Fehr said. “I am not prepared to say that in all years and under all circumstances, it’s something players should do.
“One of the things I think would be really good would be for the NHLPA and NHL to agree to a long-term establishment of a World Cup type of tournament,” he added.
In Fehr’s time at the head of the baseball players, Major League Baseball’s revenue grew to $6-billion (all currency U.S.) a year, and the average player salary increased to $3.24-million from $289,000. Fehr guided the players through a court-ordered settlement in which the players received a $280-million collusion settlement from the owners. He was also at the helm for a players strike that killed the 1994 season and, of course, baseball’s steroid scandal.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in Chicago, says Fehr’s legacy in baseball is mixed.
“On balance, it’s very positive in terms of the work he did for the players,” Zimbalist said. “It’s more complicated because of the steroid issue. He was stalwart making sure the players didn’t have their privacy rights infringed upon, and there’s a significant sentiment that he was too forceful in that issue, that he was too much of the traditional trade unionist, defending his workers under all circumstances, instead of looking out for the benefit of the game.
“But as a negotiator, there’s not much you can say that is not superlative,” Zimbalist said.
Labour armageddon was predicted the moment Fehr took the NHLPA job, and with lockouts in the NFL and NBA in 2011, and the NHLPA’s decision to shoot down realignment, there are those who believe the ground has already been salted. Rubbish, according to Fehr.
“The labour climate in football and basketball was one in which management was bound and determined to get major concessions from their union and players, and they did,” Fehr said. “It’s similar to what happened in hockey in 2004-2005 and, obviously, when that’s the case it makes for difficult negotiations.
“But I don’t necessarily think that because something happened in football or basketball it means it will happen in hockey, or that because they got through everything great in baseball’s recent negotiations – where they have no salary cap – that it’s all going to happen here. The economics of the four sports are different, the issues are different and the things that players care about are not the same things.”
Zimbalist doesn’t think working within the confines of a salary cap will be a strategic edge for Bettman or deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
“First, Don’s always willing to listen to people about things he’s not fully expert in,” Zimbalist said. “Second, the salary cap in the NHL has a range of $16-million [salary cap and ceiling between lowest payroll and highest payroll teams] so it’s not nearly as tight as the cap in football or basketball. You’ll have exceptions and loopholes and my guess is you can look for Don to find every nook and cranny to crawl into. There’s really a tremendous amount to bargain over.”
Zimbalist said Fehr’s biggest challenge will be “understanding the real financial circumstances of the league, and getting the players the best deal within that.
“Whether or not you’re in favour of salary caps, he had a position against them just like Marvin [Miller, Fehr’s predecessor as head of the baseball players’ union]had a position against them, and he held it,” Zimbalist said. “He was the only one to have a position and make it stand on the biggest issue of all.
“The results of these negotiations will be driven largely by those objective financial circumstances, but it will be on the more favourable side for the players because Fehr is there.”