NHLPA head Donald Fehr on fighting, salary cap, lockouts

Donald Fehr is approaching six years in his post as the head of the NHL Players' Association. In advance of the World Cup, he discusses next month's tournament and other issues in the game, including fighting and future lockouts.

Owners 'basically think they've got a free shot at the players'

With hockey's World Cup less than a month away, NHL Players' Association head Donald Fehr spoke about future NHL lockouts, the salary cap and fighting in the game. (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

Donald Fehr is approaching six years in his post as the head of the NHL Players' Association.

In advance of the World Cup, the 68-year-old sat down with The Canadian Press to discuss next month's tournament and other issues in the game, including fighting and future lockouts. 

Was there any reluctance on the players' side to the timing of the World Cup?

You can write down that I chuckled because the answer is there is no time that doesn't cause pressure somewhere ... And it's not that pre-season is the best time, but it probably is, at the moment, better than the others ... There has been some informal discussions, for purposes of this World Cup that never rose to the level of serious consideration, that maybe we ought to do it in February.

And it's conceivable that that would be considered going forward. But I for one, don't want to make any judgments in that regard until this one is over and we see how it goes.

How does the cycle of lockouts get broken?

The general sense I've had is that for a very long time now in all the salary-cap sports, every single one of them, there is a lockout in every single negotiation. The NFL even locked out its referees for God's sake. I mean, give me a break. Why do they do that? Because the way the agreements are structured [the owners] basically think they've got a free shot at the players.

How do you break that? You hope you end up in a circumstance in which everybody is persuaded that an agreement, mutually acceptable, acceptable to both sides, can be reached without having to go through that. Baseball is not a cap sport. It's the only one which does not have, over the last 20 years, a history of stoppages by lockout or by strike.

It took the battle royale, 94/95 (MLB players' strike during which Fehr was head of the union), to persuade the owners that they didn't fight over those issues anymore ... My advice to the players is given the history, when you go into negotiation, what you do is you hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

So, is the answer no cap? And is it something you would ever push to get back?

The answer is the players make those decisions as you get there. And we're a long way from there. And people talk about what the decision is — Is it cap or no cap? Is it this or is it that or something else? — that's not the decision you make. Everybody says "Why didn't you negotiate this?"

The problem is most of the "this" things they talk about are not available options. When you get down to whatever you think the end is of the negotiation, the question is, is the agreement which is achievable preferable to the alternative, which is ordinarily a shutdown. That's the decision you've got to make.

So it's not going into the fight saying "We're getting this back"?

It might be. You might take very strong positions. But that's a decision the players make at the time. And you might say "Well, why can't you make it now?" Well, I don't know what the economic issues are going to be at the time [and] I don't know how the players are going to be feeling. And our membership will turn over more than 50 per cent between now and then. I'm not even talking to the same people.

The only way the NHL would rid itself of fighting is if the PA consented, correct?

Legally that would have to happen. And historically, the guys have had views about it which is that hockey is basically a traditional game and to an extent that's been there. That said, it's absolutely clear that over the last several years the incidence is diminishing and I don't see anything which would change that trend.

Do you wonder if it serves a purpose in the sport anymore?

If you're saying, is it a subject that at appropriate times we would broach with the players to get reactions? Of course.