x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Fehr - kingmaker who must be king

Fehr is a no-nonsense, steely-eyed operator, and his hiring would almost surely mean another lockout in a couple of years.

The four executive directors in the 30-year history of the NHL Players' Association (NHLPA) share at least one common trait: they all left the union under a cloud of controversy. Alan Eagleson betrayed the trust of the members and ended up with criminal convictions for fraud. Bob Goodenow's arrogance and divisiveness led to a 103-day lock-out from October 1, 1994 and January 11, 1995, besides the entire 2004-05 season being missed as no collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners could be reached.

Ted Saskin's self-promotion ended in 2007 when the NHLPA sacked him for spying on players' emails. Paul Kelly, a more forward-thinking man who tried to build a relationship between the NHLPA and the team owners' league, was sacked last August. "There was no one issue that you could point to," said Buzz Hargrove, the then interim ombudsman of the NHLPA. "It was a combination of issues that have developed over a 21-month period that led the board to the conclusion that they just did not have the trust and confidence in Paul's leadership going ahead."

In short, the person the players have selected to lead them has inevitably ended up as a cartoonish permutation of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Talk about a tough job; it is like herding cats. In fact, it is so tough that the players are having trouble finding a replacement; they have been without a union leader since Kelly went. Enter Donald Fehr, whom the NHLPA hired to flesh out potential candidates for the job. In the end - and if the union are fortunate - he might decide that none of the candidates can do as good a job as he could, and just name himself to the position.

This would be a weapon of mass destruction for the union, who are more or less accustomed to kowtowing to the league's unilateral demands. Fehr, of course, was the longtime head of Major League Baseball's union and is the most powerful players' association chief in the history of pro sport. When this guy walks into a room, team owners start streaming to the exits like hapless Atlanta Thrashers fans.

For all that the NHLPA have done wrong, if the union can convince Fehr to un-retire, they would have a Goodenow-esque hard-liner who also displayed the ability to keep his members informed and satisfied. Goodenow undoubtedly accomplished more for the players than any other NHLPA boss: their pay cheques rose at a faster rate under his watch than anyone else's. But he had the fatal flaw of a my-way-or-the-highway approach. He didn't seem to care about anyone's opinion but his own, and that's a tough sell when you're dealing with egos of 700-plus pro athletes.

When the players faltered at Goodenow's insistence that they needed to sit out for two seasons to "win" the lock-out, his demise was sealed. Fehr, who survived 25 years as baseball's union leader, would be a coup for the players as a stabilising force and an expert negotiator. He might not know much about the game, but that hasn't prevented Gary Bettman from lasting nearly 20 years as the NHL's commissioner.

Fehr is a no-nonsense, steely-eyed operator, and his hiring would almost surely mean another lockout in a couple of years. That's bad for the game and its fans, but the tattered NHLPA need a saviour (or at least a few years of strong, competent leadership). Donald Fehr is as close it gets. @Email:sports@thenational.ae