NHL Lockout: Is Donald Fehr the Wrong Guy to Lead the NHLPA?

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2012

Donald Fehr has kept a professional tone in negotiations with Gary Bettman.
Donald Fehr has kept a professional tone in negotiations with Gary Bettman.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Gary Bettman comes across as a feisty, untrained and untethered dog when he is in the work-stoppage mode. He is going to defend the owners and find a way to keep money in their pockets, no matter who he hurts with that attitude.

He is an easy target to pick on. And he certainly carries his share of the blame for the cancellation of the NHL preseason. Soon, regular season games will also start to get cancelled as well.

However, is he the only one to blame? Does NHLPA chief Donald Fehr bear any of the responsibility for what may turn out to be a lengthy work stoppage?

It takes two to tango, so from that perspective, both sides have to carry blame for the situation.

There was a time that Fehr had a very similar outlook to Bettman. He was the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association for many years. That union was basically powerless in the early years of Marvin Miller's leadership, but he gave the union discipline, strength and backbone. Fehr worked with Miller for years.

Fehr showed a wary and suspicious edge (via ESPN) in his negotiating technique after he took over for failed union chief Kenneth Moffett. It seemed he would castigate baseball's leadership when he conversed about the commissioner or ownership.

Many baseball people blamed Fehr for the 1994 players' strike (per ESPN) that cost baseball that year's playoffs and World Series. That's the only year that baseball has failed to crown a champion.

Major League Baseball has not had a work stoppage since then.

Fehr stayed on the job until 2009, when he resigned from his position. By the end of his run in baseball, he had developed a cooperative attitude between the players and management on issues like drug testing, and he no longer came across as confrontational as he once did.

Fehr was hired as the executive director of the NHL Players Association in Dec. 2010.

Prior to the Collective Bargaining Agreement running out Sept. 15, Fehr worked to familiarize himself with the issues that mattered most to the players. As the negotiations began, Fehr maintained a calm and optimistic attitude, even as Bettman gave snappish responses when he was asked about the state of the talks.

Fehr has not said anything publicly to exacerbate the relationship between the players and management. In his days with the MLBPA, Fehr would not have hesitated to do just that.

Fehr seems to understand that there is nothing to be gained from making the negotiations a personal matter between himself and Bettman. However, it doesn't seem that Bettman looks at the negotiations from the same perspective.

The only thing that Fehr's presence may do to hurt the talks is that he brings a reputation as a disciplined and successful negotiator. That may intimidate Bettman. He knew he could push around former NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow (via Sports Illustrated) in the last talks. He may not have that confidence with Fehr as his adversary.

But that is Bettman's issue. In the end, Fehr should prove to be a strong leader who can get more for the NHLPA than any other negotiator.