NHL Lockout: Is Donald Fehr Playing a Dangerous Game with the Players' Income?

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistNovember 5, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13:  Don Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association meets with the media at Marriott Marquis Times Square on September 13, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL Players' Association hired Donald Fehr because it wanted to get the best possible representation after it got routed by the league during the 2004-05 lockout (source: CBC.ca).

Fehr had little knowledge of hockey when he started talking to hockey players and when he was hired in 2010. However, his background as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1986 through 2009 made him an ideal representative as far as hockey players were concerned (source: New York Daily News).

Fehr had doggedly battled baseball owners to stand up for players' rights. While the other sports all had salary caps in place, baseball did not. This was largely due to Fehr's ability as a negotiator.

Prior to his run as the MLBPA executive director, he worked under baseball labor leader Marvin Miller, who is largely seen as the father of sports labor leadership. Prior to Miller's time in baseball, players had no free-agent rights. Players were basically tied to the club that drafted or signed them unless they were traded.

They were not allowed to finish a contract and sign with a new team of their choosing. Miller and former Major League Baseball player Curt Flood were the driving forces behind free agency in all sports.

That background plays a key role in Fehr's game plan for negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for NHL players.

The one thing the players should have realized when they hired Fehr to represent them against NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL owners is that he would not capitulate to owners' demands.

That may set hockey fans off who want to see the lockout come to an end. However, Fehr has a job to do and he is not going to back off.

In his earlier years with the MLBPA, Fehr was seen as aggressive and combative (source: New York Times). The years have mellowed Fehr's outward feistiness, but they have not lessened his intensity. He is not interested in getting into a war of words with Bettman, who seems to think he can force the players into accepting whatever conditions he chooses, and Fehr is willing to stand up to him.

While it may appear to many that the battle between Bettman and Fehr is a clash of egos between two powerful men, Fehr makes it a point to consult with his players regularly and act on their direction and behalf. While there may be some players who are panicked by the work stoppage and want to get back to work, he is not going to give in unless the players' leadership tells him that's what they want.

While the lockout is now in its third month, there are positive signs. Bill Daly and Steve Fehr, the No. 2 men for the NHL and the NHLPA respectively, met over the weekend and talked for hours (source: TSN.ca). They are reportedly talking again Nov. 6.

Daly and Steve Fehr are both seen as reasonable men. It's wise for Bettman and Fehr to let their second-in-command handle the heavy lifting of negotiations.

Fehr is representing the players as best he can. He is not playing a game with the players' livelihood, he is just giving them serious representation with an eye toward getting them back on the ice as soon as possible.

It's not a smooth or easy process. It gets ugly at times. But Fehr knows it is serious and it is not about playing games.