Fehr’s task bigger than fighting image problem

The election by the NHL players of Don Fehr to be their new executive
director may throw a chill into some fans who anticipate another
damaging work stoppage in hockey — especially those Montrealers who
recall the Expos losing a shot at post-season play when baseball’s
players, led by Fehr, went on strike in 1994.  But Fehr had some words for them in his
conference call on Saturday.

“A lot of people have
knee-jerk reactions to
things, but a knee-jerk reaction that would say my background with the
baseball players association suggests I
am a hawk such that it necessarily means there will be problems in the
negotiations I don’t think reflects a very complete or sophisticated
understanding of what we went through,” he said.

“You have an obligation to negotiate in good faith with the owners
and we will do that and they have an obligation to negotiate in good
faith with the players and I trust and hope they will do that.

“We treat a work stoppage, a strike, as a last resort and it’s
something you consider only when you believe that all alternatives have
failed. If you would ask me if I anticipate a stoppage, I would say no
and I certainly hope we won’t have one but I’m not going to predict what
happens in negotiations.

“If there can be a way to find a shared
common goal of a vision for the
future and a desire to try and figure out what that should be and what
kind of agreements should be reached to make that more rather than less
likely, that ought to be what we are trying to do.

“I’m looking
forward to what the following months and years may bring,
especially the period leading up to and the negotiation of the new CBA.
It’s an important time for the players, I think it’s an important time
for the industry and I think viewed with a proper perspective it can be a
very positive time for all involved.”

To those who look at
Fehr’s record in collective bargaining as head of the MLB Players
Association and see only the negative —  the work stoppages and a lost
post-season, he suggested to Ron MacLean on CBC (video) that wasn’t the whole picture.
“It’s funny to
hear people say that because
there’s been far more labour peace in baseball the last 16 years than
there has been in the other (pro sports leagues). And if you read the
now, it certainly looks that way again. We did have our share of
difficulties, but that was a while ago and we got past it.”
The CBC’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Fehr and
baseball’s owners had a change of attitutude about work stoppages after
the strike of ’94. Friedman quotes Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, who
is a friend of Fehr’s, saying “I think at one time [Don] thought about
the players, first, foremost
and solely. I think how he looks at them first, foremost, but not
solely. I think the reality of the situation is that Don wanted to be
part of
the solution.
“We sat down and said,
‘Let’s not let this happen again. Let’s learn
from our mistakes…we can be adversaries, but we don’t have to be
enemies.’ And that I think was the key. It went from an enemy
relationship to an adversary relationship.”
On TSN.ca, David Naylor points out that Fehr “negotiated five
collective agreements, successfully sued the owners
three times for collusion and had the unwavering support of his players
through good times and bad including three work stoppages.”
The fact that the courts found baseball’s owners
had broken the law multiple times in pursuit of their labour relations
agenda gives some indication about their level of good faith and why
those work stoppages might have taken place.
While Fehr may have to combat an image problem
with hockey fans and the media, his biggest task will be uniting a union
that has been wracked by dissention and divergent interests in the last
five years, stemming from the outcome of the 2004-05 lockout.
“A union that gets beaten
and broken is gone,” Marvin Miller, Fehr’s mentor at the MLBPA, told
Elliotte Friedman. “You gotta start from
scratch. It’s not the same as a hockey team losing a game or losing the
Stanley Cup final. You can always recoup from that…A union that is
beaten thoroughly by management; I’m not saying that they can’t come
back. It’s that it’s that much harder.”
And the hardest test should come in the
negotiations on the CBA, which expires in September, 2012.
“He isn’t going to be able to turn back the clock with respect to
salary cap in the NHL, but he will be fighting to keep whatever they
have earned and to lose as little as possible,” writes Scott Morrison on
. “And he will be a
formidable adversary for (Gary) Bettman, the best he has seen in his
running the NHL.”
Chris Stevenson’s piece on Fehr in The Ottawa Sun takes the
Montreal angle. He quotes Fehr saying, “I think it’s too bad there isn’t
a team in Montreal anymore and
hopefully there will be….More people than you have reflected in the
ensuing years on the
strength of that extraordinary Expos team in 1994.”
“The Expos were riding
high, the Big O was
packed and they were singing ‘Valderee, Valdera’ and dancing in the
aisles,” Stevenson writes. “Unfortunately, Fehr called for a strike that
wiped out the season and
killed the Expos’ chances of going to the World Series against the New
York Yankees and, by extension, paved the way for the Expos’ demise
in Montreal (that’s a sentence that might set a record for monstrous
In The Toronto Star,
Damien Cox
mentions another part of Fehr’s record: “A major part of
Fehr’s baseball legacy is the stubborn resistance he
showed for years in citing ‘civil liberties’ while fighting significant
drug testing, as the grand old game became enmeshed in a damaging
steroid era.
“Now he’s coming to an NHL rink near you, joining
an industry that
has one weak drug testing policy in place.”

Cox also writes he’s
heard talk that former Hab Mathieu Schneider, who was part of the search

committee for a new NHLPA executive director, “may end up being Fehr’s
hockey lieutenant.”


  1. bobinsask says:

    Yes, it should provide great theatre.  I can’t believe the owners are placing their future in Bettman’s hands.

  2. NightRyder says:

    I’ll be fascinated to see how this plays out. In reality, the league needs to get rid of four-to-eight teams to be truly healthy. But that would mean the loss of a bunch of jobs.

    Plus, Bettman doesn’t ever want to be seen as wrong when it comes to his “no crappy U.S. market left unexplored” strategy.

    Fehr is almost as arrogant and condescending as Bettman. At the very least, it should provide good theatre.

  3. bobinsask says:

    Fehr points to the labour peace in MLB as a sign of success.  In reality, MLB is a basket case.  Once in a while there will be an outlier event but the truth is that teams like Kansas City will be nothing but cannon fodder for the Yankees and the Red Sox.  They are condemned to being also-rans under the current structure.

    MLB is not a league… it is a stage on which to show the world the Yankees and other big market teams.

    Look at the Blue Jays.  Once a robust franchise which sent an attendance record they are now struggling in mediocrity.  Average attendance has dropped by 20,000 fans per game.  This is a team that once enjoyed success on the field and at the box office.  It is not like the NHL situation in Phoenix and Atlanta where there never were any fans.

    If the Fehr structure can destroy strong a once strong franchise like the Jays, what will it do to the struggling NHL franchises.

    I am concerned.

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