Donald Fehr has an almost undefeated record in baseball's boardroom battles, which is why many are wondering why he's taking the NHLPA job. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
It's been more than 30 years since sports' greatest labour figure first hired Donald Fehr to work with baseball's Players' Association. Marvin Miller is 93, still lucid and still opinionated. (Immediately after the completion of our interview at a New York City restaurant, he ordered a Jack Daniels on the rocks. That makes him a favorite.)
Miller mentored Fehr; admires his protégé's work. "I do believe, in my estimation, that Don is far better than anything the hockey players have ever had...directing them," he said.
But, he admits, he doesn't understand why Fehr is taking the NHLPA job.
"I don't think highly of the management people in hockey, based on what's happened over many years...Miserable human beings, they don't know the meaning of competition...their whole idea is collusion," Miller's on a roll, but saves some for the players.
"A union that gets beaten and broken is gone. 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."
Tom Glavine, a two-time Cy Young Award winner and long-time Fehr right-hand man at the bargaining table, sees hockey players as much more conservative than their baseball brethren.
"I was kind of surprised, ultimately, that they settled where they settled [in 2005] because it seemed to me they didn't gain very much by settling where they did. For all that was lost, it seemed they could've given all that up earlier on and not missed a whole season."
Fehr has an almost undefeated record in baseball's boardroom battles, which is why many are wondering why he's taking this job. He doesn't have an emotional attachment to hockey, and many of the labour issues he successfully fought in baseball -- a salary cap, for example -- are already in place here.
That's led to rumblings that he's only doing it for the wrong reasons. The New York Post reported in September that Fehr's list of demands included a $3 million US salary, the ability to hire his brother as an executive and the right to continue living in New York. (It should be pointed out that brother Steven Fehr, a former agent, is not necessarily a bad person to have in place. But, amongst everything else, it's bad optics.)
The good news for hockey fans is that it's incorrect to paint Fehr as a strike-loving devil ready to bring a scorched-earth policy to the sport. Like the NHL in 2005, MLB crashed and burned in 1994 with a stupid work-stoppage that killed the World Series. Since then, baseball has successfully bargained two new CBAs without any missed time.
Part of the solution
And that's no coincidence.
"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," says Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, who is a friend. "I think the reality of the situation is that Don wanted to be part of the solution."
There is a terrific book about the history of baseball's business called Lords of the Realm. In it, Fehr said the 1981 strike "left a foul taste with me. It permanently clouded the way I viewed people and their motives. It left significant scars that were still there five years later."
Beeston says that's no longer the case.
"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."
"Nobody trusted anybody," Glavine said. "It didn't matter what came out of anybody's mouth, nobody believed what the other side was saying. And it took awhile to get over that level of distrust."
"We got the point where we realized maybe they are telling the truth here a little bit. Maybe we need to dig deeper and find out what both sides are talking about. Maybe we can find some common ground and get away from this notion that, well, you're lying and you think we're lying and we're just going to butt heads and whoever stands tall the longest is going to be the one that wins, because I think when that happens I don't think it's fair to say that anybody wins because the game suffers a lot."
Boy, does that sound familiar.
The next negotiation is going to be high-revenue owners vs. low-revenue owners as much as it will be owners vs. players. You can expect Fehr will make that a focal point of his plan. He is a big believer in revenue sharing, and played a major role in making that a significant part of baseball's CBA.
"At the end of the day, he's fair," Glavine. "You can work with him, you can deal with him, but if you're going in with the mindset that you can pull one over on the players, you're in for a long fight."
That's why, if things go badly, Fehr will not be afraid to point out that the NHL already shut down one season to fix the system, so how many tries does it need?
Hopefully, however, it won't come to that.
"What the hockey fans should know is that they're dealing with someone who realizes the importance of the job and, the job is to get a deal done," Beeston said. "At the same time [his job is] to protect the players, but more importantly to grow the game of hockey. One thing that Don does understand...the more money that is generated by the game, the more money there is for the players."
Glavine agrees: "He understands that without a league there aren't any players."
The final word goes to the biggest optimist in the room, Beeston, talking about Fehr and Gary Bettman.
"Their job is to get a deal done. The two of them. Their job is to get a deal done, not to end hockey. That's the same thing I think that Don and commissioner [Bud] Selig decided they were going to have to do after Armageddon almost in 1994."
Most of the time, Beeston is the smartest guy in the room. Let's hope that, once again, he is.
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