When Donald Fehr took over as executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association more than a year ago, the predominant reaction in the hockey world was dread.
Wasn’t this the same guy who, in a similar role leading Major League Baseball’s players, had helped orchestrate a late-season strike in 1994 that led to a World Series cancellation and the disenfranchisement of countless baseball fans?
Wasn’t this the same guy who came to embody the very idea of dissent between elite professional players and the teams that employed them?
The answer to both questions is “yes,” but that affirmative doesn’t mean that Fehr’s presence should immediately be considered a negative factor among hockey fans. Those folks don’t want to see another debacle like the 2004-05 NHL lockout – the lengthy labor stoppage that terminated an entire season.
Given that catastrophe, it’s easy to understand why NHL fans are still traumatized by the mere thought of labor discussions this time around. The seven-year collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 15, raising rumors and reports that hockey season may not start on time in early October.
But the combination of Fehr’s (somewhat ancient) history and the painful memories of eight years ago should not be enough to guarantee that a significant number of regular-season games will be lost at the start of 2012-13.
For one, Fehr has installed a whole new level of professionalism to the proceedings. Remember how the clearly overwhelmed Bob Goodenow led the NHLPA to the point of no return in early 2005? Fehr is not going to allow that to happen, especially with league revenues at an all-time high and much of that cash trickling down to the players.
Fehr has been down this path many times before, and despite what most people recall about the 1994 MLB strike, he also helped negotiate multiple new CBA deals following that notable standoff. In fact, baseball is the only sport since 1995 to not lose a single game to a work stoppage. Much of that progress was due to Fehr and his successors learning lessons from history.
Of course, it’s not all about Fehr and the NHLPA. The owners’ reported first offer last month was borderline draconian in its desire to severely cut the players’ share of the revenue pie and keep young skaters under some form of club control for a whopping 10 years after their debuts.
If the league and its owners are that set on rolling labor conditions back to the 1970s, then the NHLPA may have to take a stand. Unlike in 2004, however, the players may actually have the moral support of the fan majority, given how the first offer triggered a gag reflex among many.
For what it’s worth, the public comportment of the two negotiating parties is much more amicable than it was last time around. As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, both Fehr and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly agree there is a good chance that a deal will get done before the deadline.
Fehr has been traveling in Europe to get feedback from NHLers who make their homes overseas, adding to the perspective he’s gleaned from North American skaters. Meanwhile, NHLPA staffers are exploring financial information the league recently submitted.
It’s all part of the necessary diligence that comes with such a high-profile negotiation. There have even been reports that discussions could continue during the upcoming season with the old CBA terms rolling over, which speaks well of the respect between the two sides.
To many sports fans, the name Fehr can inspire fear, but as we’ve seen thus far this summer, his presence is a positive one in constructing a new NHL CBA. There is real hope that baseball’s recent low-drama labor atmosphere can spread to hockey.
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