The NHLPA and Realignment

The Latest From The NHLPA On The Realignment Issue:

PA still gathering feedback from members on realignment. Exec board will decide this week whether to make call itself or hold full PA vote.

There’s a fight going on here that the fans should be paying attention to. The problem is, it’s a quiet one so it’s easy to miss.

Welcome to the world of Donald Fehr. 

If you think back to the previous work stoppage — not the one we’re dealing with this season, but the one before — the owners made big noises about wanting to make the players partners in the game, and that was part of the “concessions” that helped bring the agreement and the new CBA. 

The owners quickly made clear the whole concept was a sham; they put a couple of players on the competition committee, which was routinely ignored, to the point Martin Brodeur quit as a waste of time. And that was the most progressive aspect of “partnering”. In pretty much every other aspect of the game, the players were quickly told to go back to playing and leave the hard business stuff to the owners. 

Sometimes I think the owners forget that players have memories. And they remember this stuff. And so when a situation happens where they can “return the favor”, they will. 

After that CBA, the NHLPA spasmed, Kelly was dumped, and the players went off and decided to get serious about being a players association, and ultimately hired Donald Fehr. 

And you see Fehr at work here. One of the tenets that Fehr works under is that the players should be a business partner with the owners; everyone works together and everyone grows the game together and everyone wins. Baseball gave up on the idea that the players were property and shouldn’t have a say in business matters slowly and with great pain — just look at the hundreds of millions of dollars lost to the collusion lawsuits. But ultimately, between the work of Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr, the players were taught to get involved and be informed, the owners figured out it was better to work together than fight each other, and baseball has prospered. 

In hockey, it’s not as bad as it was in baseball in the collusion days, but you still hear the word “asset” thrown around talking about players far too often, and hockey has definitely moved back into the mode of “these are the things the owners decide, and the union should stay out of it”. To say that this doesn’t sit well with the players and Fehr is an understatement. 

But don’t expect outright war. The thing the hockey owners haven’t seemed to figure out yet is that Fehr plays a long game, looks for situations he can take advantage of and us them to his advantage. With realignment, the owners went off and made decisions without consulting the players, which gave Fehr an opportunity to push his “players are partners” agenda, and quietly threaten to bollix up the entire situation by shoving it into arbitration or even court. The owners realized that even if they ultimately won out that fight, it’d cause massive delays, and they might lose. So they backed off and agreed to bring the players into the discussion. 

Which they did. Sort of. After the decisions were done. Which isn’t what the players want. And the owners did it by offering the players the final decision to approve, and a short deadline to approve it, and more or less demanded a rubber-stamp on the decision. 

Not surprisingly, the players have decided they aren’t sure they like this plan (because, well, they weren’t in on the formation of it, among other things). And not surprisingly, it’s taking the union a lot longer to evaluate and vote on the plan than the owners asked for. Just going through the process, folks. Sorry about that (unspoken hint: if we’d been in the discussion EARLIER, this might all go faster… hint). By slipping this past the owners deadline, they create some minor heartburn for the owners. 

I expect the players will ratify re-alignment. Eventually. But along the way, Fehr has made it clear that the players have a say in these kinds of decisions, and ultimately, maneuvered the owners into agreeing to that (the owners, honestly, made that easy). And when the owners then tried to turn that into a rubber-stamp of what the owners decided to do, the players have turned it into a minor crisis as a way of spanking the owners on the wrist. 

That’s how Fehr likes to work. Not outright war, but smaller situations that allow him to push his agenda and manipulate the other side into an agreement that sets a precedent. And that precedent is then used on future, generally bigger targets (“we were involved in that decisions. How can we not be part of this one?”); a big target is going to be the next round of television deals — you can bet Fehr wants the players in on those talks, and the owners want no part of it. 

I’ll sell popcorn. But right now, the owners aren’t winning these fights, and Fehr and the players are. And they may seem like relatively small ones, but a poker player that wins a lot of small pots still ends the evening with a large stack to cash in. 

Fehr is doing a good job of accumulating chips, too, almost without it being noticed.