Time for Fehr to stand and deliver

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
11:49
AM ET
 

And the hockey world is about to find out how all the hype, the legend that has grown up around the longtime baseball union leader translates to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s world.

From the outside, that would appear to come down to the simple question of whether Fehr can keep his constituents on point once the second lockout in eight years begins at 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

But that’s only part of it.

With the two sides edging fractionally toward a deal with a pair of counterproposals Wednesday, the days leading up to what would be the start of the 2012-13 season in early October will test Fehr’s skills, not just as a hard negotiator but as one who is savvy enough to understand the landscape and see two, three, eight months down the road.

It’s a landscape that is particularly foreboding.

As we keep saying, never mind the right and wrong of whether or how far the players should move off their current 57 percent of hockey-related revenues. Never mind that it’s distasteful and hypocritical for owners to have signed players to long-term contracts this offseason knowing (or assuming or, at the very least, hoping) they wouldn’t have to pay those contracts in full.

It makes for compelling discussion but is white noise when Fehr and his players sit down in New York to decide a course of action.

What Fehr has to figure out and then lay out for his players is how this is likely to play out once the lights go dark Saturday night.

Will the owners budge from their last offer, which starts at the players taking a 49 percent cut of revenues and finishes with what would be a six-year deal with the players at 47 percent? We’re guessing, yes, there is still wiggle room from the owners’ side.

Fehr has to believe that, too.

But how long does Fehr have to exploit that wiggle room and will it be enough for his players? Further, what happens after Saturday?

Once the doors go "click" Saturday night, Fehr has to discern whether Bettman is bluffing that Wednesday’s deal, or at least elements of it -- like keeping the current formula for deciding what goes into the hockey-related revenue pie, for instance -- go bye-bye.

According to the league’s math, if the players miss eight games -- less than a month of the 2012-13 schedule -- they will have given up the same amount of money that would have been reflected in the givebacks included in the proposal delivered by the owners Wednesday.

If you take the players’ revenue projections, it’s fewer games than even that before the players are in a deficit situation vis a vis the coming season.

So is it really about the money, then?

If it is a simple bottom-line deliberation, then how does Fehr explain to his players how he expects to get that money back for them if the lockout goes beyond those eight games?

No one, at this stage at least, questions the players’ will to go the distance if need be to get what they believe is a fair deal. But let’s say that means an entire season is lost, how do the players recoup those wages, whether they end up with a fair deal or not?

Is the expectation on the players’ side that at some point next summer, or a year from now, the owners collectively take a knee and restore the players their current 57 percent of revenues for the next five years? Or four or six?

Can anyone see this ownership group, led by a commissioner poised to lock out his players for the third time in his tenure, ever agreeing to that kind of scenario? Ever?

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the owners are the ones who buckle this time around after wasting another season chasing a new agreement. Even if fans repeated their shocking forgiveness of the 2004-05 lockout by returning in record numbers -- and there’s no way that’s going to happen, not a chance -- how does a player whose career lasts, say, three years make back the $2 million or so he saw go down the tubes this season? The simple answer is that he won’t.

Even on his best day, Fehr cannot come up with a deal that restores the salaries forfeited if an entire season is lost. All the money that a journeyman player who has seen one-third or one-quarter of his career earning power lost to a labor war was counting on to build a retirement fund and plan for the future of families goes away.

Forever.

So, those are the kinds of things Fehr is or should be discussing with his players in New York.

It doesn’t mean the players shouldn’t stand up to the owners or that they lack the fortitude to sacrifice millions of dollars they’ll never get back. It’s their choice and maybe it will be worth it to stand up for what they believe is right and refuse to knuckle under to an ownership group that is long on need (and greed) and short on creativity when it comes to dealing with its players.

But in the coming days, if Donald Fehr is doing his job properly and not just looking to mix it up with Bettman for the pure sport of seeing who’s got the biggest labor stones, the veteran union leader will lay out all of the possibilities and probabilities for his players.

Those options including asking for more and then deciding that maybe it’s enough.

Of course, in the end it’s the players’ choice, but they brought in Fehr not just to fight for them but to read and understand the signs presented and suggest the best path to follow.

Fehr knows this, of course. And he knows he’s being paid to lead players not necessarily down the righteous path but perhaps somewhere else entirely.

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