Does NHL have something to Fehr?

STEPHEN KNIGHT, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 12:26 PM ET

TORONTO -- The revolving door to the president's office at the National Hockey League Players' Association is once again in motion and the punditocracy is foaming with rumours that former baseball players' union boss Don Fehr will soon be shuttling into the wood-paneled inner sanctum.

Fehr has been acting as an unpaid adviser to the NHLPA for about a year after fighting baseball owners for 26 years -- an often tumultuous tenure that included five collective bargaining agreements and one strike, in 1994 (for which Montreal Expos fans will never forgive the union).

Fehr can be as hard-line about not having a salary cap as Stephen Harper is on scrapping the long-form census. The New York Yankees 2010 payroll is $206.3 million. We're not sure what the Prime Minister's salary is since all stats are just a bunch of damn lies, anyway.

But back to pucks.

It seems the NHLPA, if it hires Fehr as its new president, is signaling that it is spoiling for a fight. I think the union should think twice before dropping the gloves with owners again.

First, players haven't exactly had to hold bake sales to pay their bills following the introduction of the salary cap before the 2005-06 season. In fact, the salary floor for this season is more than the salary cap of a few years ago, based on increased league revenues, but it may not be an ever-expanding pie.

After all, there was a worldwide financial meltdown between the last collective bargaining agreement, in July 2005, and its expiration date, in September 2012.

We're still recovering from one recession and, if U.S. housing foreclosure and unemployment stats are any indicator -- patience, Mr. Harper! -- we could be lurching toward another. It's the new normal and it's not pretty, especially if you're in a business that relies on consumers with discretionary spending money.

Sure, there are some Flyers fans who will forgo rent in order to buy tickets, but that's not the rule. With the exception of Toronto, where people eagerly surrender their wallets, credit cards and ATM PINs in exchange for an inferior product, those with less discretionary spending may cut back on luxuries like professional hockey.

With a salary cap already in place and the owners not about to surrender it, the hiring of Fehr, if it happens, will be an ideological move to fight over a few million here and a few million there, the pro sports equivalent of table scraps.

Sometimes, timing is everything and, if you support the NHLPA, the time to hire Fehr would have been in 2005, before the owners watched the players cave to the cap.

Bizarrely, whoever is the next president may find him/herself in the odd position of helping owners circumvent the CBA.

We're thinking here of the Ilya Kovalchuk case. The league rejected the 17- year, $102-million pact as a way of getting around the salary cap by amortizing the annual cap hit over a long period. The owners want the best labour for the cheapest price, so they did some creative math. The union wants job security for its members and didn't put up a whisper of protest against the Kovalchuk deal. If the Kovalchuk deal would have stood and thereby lowered average annual salaries in the process, shouldn't the NHLPA have come out against it, too?

Should a union stand by as management engineers contracts that lower the average salary of members when it comes time for them to negotiate?

If so, what's the point of having a union?


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