Grasping for Easy Answers
|CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR|
|Donald Fehr speaks to the media after a NHL Players' Association meeting on July 14, 2010.|
The NHLPA, to be fair, has tried diligently in recent months to get its house in order, whether it's getting rid of the final sniffs of the Ian Penny-led coup brigade or drafting a new constitution. Actually, to be accurate, the small proportion of the 700-plus members of the union that actually care about this stuff have tried diligently.
Now, however, the union is apparently trying to hire Don Fehr as it's new executive director in the middle of a very complex fight over these absurd long-term contracts that were designed by agents and teams to flout the league's salary cap structure.
Hire Fehr on the fly, as it were.
Yes, they've been considering this appointment for a considerable period of time. Some might suggest that ever since Paul Kelly was decapitated last summer, Fehr has been in the picture. Even before Kelly was canned, really. Some say he's been helping out of pure goodwill, others suggest this is a guy who can sniff out easy money from a group of hockey players who are easy to direct and order around.
Take your pick.
But now is not the time to hire Fehr. In fact, I'd argue there never would be a right time. It's just too easy an answer for a players union that loves quick, convenient answers and has paid dearly for them over the years.
Funny, isn't it, that good, active union men like Brendan Shanahan and Chris Chelios have chosen to go and work for management as soon as their playing days were done, either because the union didn't want them or they didn't want it. Instead, we have this apparent attraction to a former baseball union head who doesn't exactly seem like he wants to make the NHLPA his life's work.
Some say he'd be the Clint Eastwood, tough guy the union needs. Well, they had such a person in Bob Goodenow, and chose to stage a mutiny partway through the last collective bargaining process because influential players saw too many paycheques evaporating.
Fehr couldn't be tougher than Goodenow even if he put Gary Bettman in a headlock. What this remains about, really, is the committment, or lack thereof, of NHL players to be masters of their own affairs. They don't trust one another, quite obviously, are generally terribly uninformed about their own organization, and most recoil when asked to participate in even a conference call, let alone a full-blown meeting.
The personalities involved are curious, sometimes bizarre. Last summer it was Andrew Ference, of all people, leading the charge to take down Kelly, while Dan Hamhuis put his name behind a letter suggesting Penny was doing a wonderful job. Now, you have various union figures leaking out every detail of both ongoing negotiations with the NHL and, apparently, Fehr's contract demands. The office intrigue just never stops with these people.
To paraphrase a prominent U.S. political commentator, it's about the players, stupid.
Now you've apparently got a group of player reps trying to muster a vote on hiring Fehr in order to help guide them through the ongoing Ilya Kovalchuk mess, which may or may not come to a conclusion by 5 p.m. today. Is the NHL seeking to exploit the absence of credible NHLPA leadership to get something it couldn't get through collective bargaining? Of course, it is. Certainly Goodenow was all in favour of exploiting the competitive nature of teams during his reign to get better salaries for his players. This isn't a friendly game of tennis. It's hardnosed, high finance over billions of dollars. You fight to win.
But Kovalchuk isn't the fight this union needs to win right now. Neither is this battle over these silly contracts, which benefit only a tiny minority of players and a minority of teams.
The NHLPA needs to win the fight from within. It needs to stick with the process, avoid easy answers and find a new, fresh, energized, focussed leader, one tied to this sport and to tomorrow, not some other sport and yesterday.