NHL Season Salvaged, Fehr's Hockey Legacy Takes Shape (Interview w/ Greg Wyshynski)

Bruce Bennett

Everyone seemed to know what was coming when the NHLPA made Fehr, a veteran sports labor boss, an advisor during the 2009 season. But with a deal signed and games underway, his hockey legacy deserves a chapter of its own.

After so much boardroom negotiating and podium grandstanding, it's been a quiet start to the lockout-shortened NHL season for NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr.

"The focus has to be on the game," Fehr told Sports Business Journal's Liz Mullen in a recent interview. "It has to be back on the performances of the players."

Three days into the start of the lockout-shortened regular season, the focus is squarely back on the players and their game. Fans have returned to the league in record numbers. Merchandise sales can barely keep up with demand in some markets. By all indications, four months of contempt for the league and its players union were two tears in a bucket compared to fans' completely inelastic demand for NHL hockey.

All back to normal.

Fehr and the teams of lawyers opposite him at the NHL did a fine job of galvanizing public scorn through the course of the nearly four-month long 2012 NHL lockout. He and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, both lawyers, were the the ones gathering headlines. Meanwhile, the league's players made only occasional appearances at a podium or on the odd KHL scoresheet.

With the season underway and both Fehr and Bettman now sitting quietly on the sidelines (Bettman attended the Kings' Cup banner raising game but remained absent from the ceremonies), one can begin to take stock of Fehr's role in the negotiations and his impact on the NHL.

The language of the CBA isn't finalized yet, but the former MLB tormentor has a new legacy in the NHL. And lockout or not, his impact on the players' union, and perhaps the health of the game, has been nothing but a positive.

About a month ago this blog ran a piece in praise of Fehr in which it was argued that blame for the lockout rested mostly with the owners, not the players.

With games back underway it's a question that's rightfully, finally off the minds of fans. But the chapter is one worth exploring, especially as the effects of the lockout and the new CBA play out in free agency, in trades and on the ice. Pensburgh spoke with Yahoo! Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski about Fehr, his impact on the NHLPA and whether the union did the best it could hope to do in its second battle with owners in less than a decade.

The big question now, regarding Fehr, is how does his work in the NHL stack up against the rest of his resume?

"His legacy is cemented already as one of the best labor negotiators that we've ever seen in pro sports," Wyshynski said.

That might be a hard sell for fans who saw Fehr's mug plastered beneath lockout headlines for 113 days, but Fehr works for the players, after all. And what Fehr was able to do for the union against a group of owners who held all the cards was impressive.

If nothing else, it was a big step up on the beating the players took under Bob Goodenow in 2005.

"It was really impressive how he came in and galvanized the union at a time when it looked like they were unprepared for a labor war. He really increased the communication between the players and got them in the right mindset for preparing themselves for what was going to be a lockout."

Those were key among the things Fehr accomplished for the union. And as long as there's a season, even a shortened one, the old line that Fehr isn't concerned about protecting the game has to be shelved.

Much like in music, where the notes that aren't played can sometimes be as important as those which are, it was the things Fehr didn't do in his power as executive director—and could have—that should cast a positive light on his work in the NHL.

For his part, Fehr did not torpedo the NHL season at several critical points even though he was empowered by the players to do so. The union rank and file twice voted to approve decertification if necessary, a move that was wholly within Fehr's hands to make. There was a real chance the union could have decertified the second time, in January, as the deadline for striking a deal was just days away.

Twice, Fehr held the line and didn't act to file the disclaimer of interest, a move that would have opened a new volume on the book of NHL dysfunction. Keeping the disclaimer in his pocket was part of getting a deal done, even if there was a real chance the decertification process could have ultimately gotten a better deal for the players.

Fehr is philosophically committed to the power and vitality of the labor union and the ideas stemming from that side of the table. Playing ball with a salary cap and 50-50 split is not in line with that sort of thinking, but it was certainly necessary in getting a deal done to salvage the 2013 season.

Just as there are things Fehr refrained from doing which might have torpedoed the season, the things he actively worked for ended in the players getting a more favorable deal than almost anyone expected.

Especially NHL owners.

"Inside the negotiating room, it's clear he became the NHL's tormentor," Wyshynski said. "You hear these legendary stories now of taking a half an hour to get a glass of water, really holding on tight and frustrating the NHL at every turn, and getting more out of the deal than maybe a lot of the owners were comfortable with."

"He did everything that was expected and the most important thing is that he was able to lead this thing towards a deal."

The list of what he ultimately accomplished is impressive. The core question is whether or not he protected players' interests. The overwhelming thought, especially as it was heard from union membership, was that he did. The union is now vastly more organized than in 2005 and the effect was seen as the work stoppage played out through press conferences in which Fehr spoke before cadres of his players. Fehr opened lines of communication, played the PR game by the book and earned the trust of all but a few disgruntled veterans in his ranks.

The psychological battle took place publicly and far longer than anyone wanted, and it did its job in creating a much stronger pro-player sentiment than in 2005, when player salaries were genuinely out of control.

The real gains the players made under Fehr will come within the language of the new CBA.

- Earned a defined-benefit pension plan, the first of its kind in the NHL
- Secured the make-whole provision early on, a make-or-break issue amongst players with existing deals
- Salvaged the remaining paydays of the 2012-13 season—no small issue for most NHL players
- Increased revenue sharing and restructured eligibility to receive it, although maybe not significantly enough
- Max-contract terms of 7 and 8 years despite early NHL bids for 5-year limits as Bill Daly's "hill to die on"

With the memorandum of understanding signed, games underway and only the legalese of the master document left to be hammered out, Fehr and Bettman can sink back to the sidelines for a while—perhaps as many as ten years, if Fehr's tactics managed to leave owners with little appetite for heading back to the negotiating table.

To hear it from Fehr himself, who has already done so much to help the players, stepping out of the headlines is one thing he and Bettman can do to help the game.

"What I think needs to happen now is that people who are not playing hockey need to be out of the spotlight," Fehr said. "And I intend to get out of the spotlight."

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