- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference is convinced that if former NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly still had been in charge, the players' association would not be benefiting the way it is under current boss Donald Fehr.
Ference, a strong supporter of the union and a member of its executive board, made it clear Monday that he thinks this season's lockout would have been a lot shorter if Kelly had been calling the shots.
"We'd be playing," Ference said. "I'm sure we wouldn't have missed as much hockey and I think the league would have been salivating. That's the blunt answer -- for sure."
Before Fehr took over in 2010, Kelly was ousted on Aug. 31, 2009, after Ference and the rest of the executive board voted 22-5 to remove its director.
Fehr spent 26 years as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and helped create one of the strongest unions in professional sports. The NHLPA hired Fehr to accomplish the same in its sport, and according to Ference, Fehr has made the union stronger and was a major factor in the players negotiating a better collective bargaining agreement with the league. The deal was struck in the early morning hours last Sunday in New York, ending the league's lockout.
Unlike the aftermath of the previous lockout in 2004-05, this time around the players believe the decisions they made were the right ones. According to Ference, the PA was an "extremely unified group" and it believed in what it was doing from the top down.
"We're in such a better position as a union right now," he said. "The strength that Fehr and his brother [NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr], everybody from the lawyers they brought in to the economists, the belief the guys had and the unity the guys had was unbelievable in the short amount of time that it came together.
"It was impressive, really impressive to see that transformation from going all the way back to the last lockout and seeing different people come in and take over the helm."
During his time being involved with the union, the 33-year-old Ference said he has witnessed too many times that the players were left feeling disappointed under the union leadership. He said there were unresolved issues that were tearing the union apart.
"To finally have some stability and to have some real leadership, a guy who can come in and do a real time-crunched job of getting to know everybody and unifying everybody in a really tough situation is awesome," Ference said.
Now, with a 10-year deal in place, a stronger pension plan for the players and a 50-50 split of revenue, Ference says the union feels it has accomplished its goal of getting a better deal for current and future players.
"Going forward it gives us such stability and such strength for our union to move ahead," Ference said. "There's a lot more to a union than just fighting for a CBA. The nice part is so many guys see the vision of going forward and what we can do and work with the league in a positive manner now and really take this game and our union to the next level. That's a great thing.
"It's easy to look at the guys who have been in the league forever and benefit and make a ton of money, but the average career is still fairly short. Guys have a very short time to get some benefits and make the most of their careers. The union is the base behind all those opportunities and without a strong union, without the involvement of players, you're not going to get the guaranteed contracts, you're not going to have pensions, you're not going to have the slice of the pie that we have now."
Even though Ference spent the early portion of the winter playing overseas in the Czech Republic, he was closely connected to negotiations. He was on every conference call and added his input when needed.
"There were a number of guys who were critical in getting things over the hump," Ference said. "It's not like everyone agreed on things, but you had to have different voices there for Don and some of the lawyers to really base some of their decisions off of, so I was just another voice."
Ference returned to the States and rejoined his union brothers in New York in the days leading up to the tentative agreement. He described the entire process -- whether he was there in person or listening on a conference call -- as chaotic and stressful because of the stakes and the impact on the players' future.
"We weren't willing to sign any piece of paper and sell out some young guys who haven't even played in the league yet," Ference said. "There are enough union people in this city that know what union is all about and you can't just throw guys under the bus because you want to sign a document to take care of yourself.
"It's not easy to do and it's not easy to face people and say you're sorry for making them wait so long for a sport they love, but it wasn't by choice, and trust us, it hurt a lot. All we can do is go out and play and make people proud to come watch and enjoy hockey again."
There were certain points during the months of negotiating when both sides felt the entire season would be lost. If that had happened, the result could have been catastrophic.
"We're fans as much as anybody else and it drove us crazy to be locked out. It's not our choice to shut the game down or to have it stopped," Ference said. "We fully wanted to play and negotiate while we play."
Numerous times during the process it appeared a deal was close, only to have one side or the other back away. A mediator was called in to help bring the sides closer to an agreement. The NHLPA prepared to decertify but held off, and after a 16-hour negotiating session, the sides came to a tentative agreement. It wasn't long after when Ference tweeted to the hockey world that the lockout was over at 5 a.m. on Sunday.
"When it finally got completed, everybody double-checked it about four times before everybody said 'yes' to it," Ference said. "It was obviously just complete satisfaction."
Some fans will remain angry. Then there are the die-hards who will look past all the bitterness and won't miss a period of play. The last thing Ference wants are fans thinking the players are spoiled and take things for granted. This was about unity, he says. The players believe they did the right thing.
"We all make good money," Ference said. "I'm not going to sit here and say anybody is having a tough time in our sport. We're making a tremendous amount of money and no one will say that they're not extremely fortunate.
"But the business makes a lot of money. There are some pretty extreme risks that go with it and an extreme amount of dedication, so like any industry that can produce something like that, you want to get what you deem fair for your services, and what's fair for everybody involved. Now that we're at the 50-50 split, it's hard to argue that it's not fair for everybody."
A deal is in place. Hockey is back. If, as expected, the puck drops on Jan. 19, there will be 48 games before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. The hockey will be fast and furious and should be exciting to watch.
"It's going to be a real rush to the playoffs. It's going to be good hockey," Ference said. "It's going to be intense. You just hope that can somehow satisfy some of our fans and do justice to how good the sport is.
"When it was teetering there, I think there were people on both sides that were ready to blow the whole thing up. It was pretty scary to think of when you actually think long-term and what that would actually mean to everybody. It was pretty intense."
The Bruins' Andrew Ference is proud that his union stood strong.