TORONTO - When the clock struck midnight on Saturday, it signified more than just champagne corks popping and large groups of boozed-up revelers crooning in song to usher in the new year.
It also marked the final countdown to the end of the current collective bargaining agreement between the National Hockey League and the players association.
With 2011 giving way to 2012, hockey fans have their collective fingers crossed that another ugly work stoppage such as the one that plagued the sport in 2004-05 does not happen again when this CBA runs out on Sept. 15.
The point man on the players side is Donald Fehr, who has served as executive director of the NHLPA for about 13 months now. Given his two-plus decade stint as the head of the baseball players union, his mandate remains the same: Represent the interests of his constituents which, in this case, are more than 650 NHLers.
In a recent, wide-ranging interview with the Toronto Sun, Fehr, 63, addressed six key points related to the upcoming collective bargaining process.
1. On his relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
Fehr and Bettman have known each other for about 30 years, which could help talks at the grass roots level. Having said that, Fehr cautions that it does not guarantee an agreement will be reached any quicker because of it.
“It may (play a factor) from the standpoint of trying to judge someone brand new and trying to judge what every phrase means, things like that,” Fehr said. “But we’ve both been around a long time. We both know how this game is played, if I can phrase it that way. We both have our own reputations. In the end, the dynamics of the deal are governed, in my experience, by the interests of the constituents.”
2. On fears that a potential clash of personalities have hindered past CBA talks in pro sports
“All this talk about the personalities of the negotiators, or whether they’re not making a deal in the interest of their clients because they are upset with each other, just doesn’t strike me as the real world,” Fehr said, “I think that’s gossip stuff. I hope so anyway.”
3. On the suggestion that the players have become more unified
“I think so,” Fehr acknowledged. “I think that the feeling was, there used to be an extremely close sense of community here. And after the lockout, with the disruptions and the uncertainty and the change of administrations the two or three times that they had, that got lost a little bit.
“You had a generation of players come in, a little less than 50% of the membership now, that didn’t have any first-hand experience with the way things used to be. But they are looking as a group to put it back together. They are beginning to understand that their greatest strength in bargaining is their own unity. They get it pretty quickly when you talk to them.”
4. On the talks timeline for the months ahead
While Fehr thinks discussions will kick off sometime after the Jan. 29 all-star game, don’t be surprised if the bargaining crunch-time occurs in the summer.
“In a lot of labour relations settings, the last few weeks before the exsisting agreement expires is when the key compromises are made if a deal is going to be done by the date of the expiration of the existing agreement,” Fehr said. “That’s usually the case in negotiations, whether it be key legislation or someone buying a house ... But I would expect that, leading up to it, we’ll do a lot of preliminary work.”
Fehr added he wants to “spend more time with the players this spring talking about what additional things we’ve learned.”
5. On whether recent labour agreements in the NFL, NBA and MLB have an impact on the upcoming NHL talks
“Not really,” he said. “The negotiations are self-contained. The economics of the four sports are different. The nature of the individuals are different. And the issues are likely to be different.
“There was a long strike in baseball the owners forced in 1994. They had a hockey lockout in ’94. Doesn’t mean they had one in football.”
6. On another potential work stoppage
“The purpose is to hope to avoid doing that,” Fehr said. “And you hope that’s the feeling on the other side, too. A lot of people think that was not the view the last time.”
FEHR ON REALIGNMENT
A decision from the NHLPA on the league’s radical realignment proposal likely will come within the next couple of weeks, maybe even days.
The potential format, which was passed at the league’s Board of Governors meetings at Pebble Beach in early December, would see the 30 teams split into four conferences, with the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning joining the Maple Leafs and fellow Northeast Division foes Buffalo, Boston, Montreal and Ottawa in one of them. Now, all that remains, is an endorsement from the PA.
Executive head Donald Fehr said the union and league officials had held discussions on the subject in the 10 days or so leading up to Christmas.
Said Fehr: “Is there more travel or less? Does it produce more or fewer off days? If so, are those more concentrated at home or on the road? Does it result in getting to away cities later? Does it affect the playoffs in a good way or is it fundamentally unfair? And are there are certain divisions where it is mathematically easier to make the playoffs than in other ones?”
“Those are some of the things we’ve been discussing."
Know this: The head of the NHL Players Association is just as concerned about the concussion issue in hockey as players, league officials, fans and media are, if not more.
To that end, Donald Fehr makes the following observations:
1. “Until very recently, the number of concussions as compared to last year was actually down. Whether that remains the same over the course of the season remains to be seen.”
2. “We’ve had a rash of them among well-known players in the past several weeks. And that generates a lot of publicity and is very upsetting.
“It’s upsetting when a player of any calibre goes through this.”
3. “We are working with the league on a concussion working group and elsewhere to attempt to examine things that have happened the past several years.
“One is to minimize the likelihood of concussions. But on the other side, it is to recognize them more frequently than we did in the past, doing a better job of diagnosis and not forcing players back (too early).
“A big problem with concussions is (players getting) concussion No. 2 before concussion No. 1 is healed, You want to do everything you can to avoid something like that.”
4. “We are working with the league and on our own on whether there are changes in equipment, rules and the nature of the rinks that could make a difference.”
ON THE SOCHI OLYMPICS
Yes, there is a group of players who would love to lace up the blades at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
And, yes, Donald Fehr acknowledges that having NHLers at the next Winter Games potentially would give the sport more exposure “in markets which don’t ordinarily watch NHL players ply their trade.”
“But that is a consideration,” cautioned Fehr. “It doesn’t mean it’s the only one.”
It has been suggested that, as part of the collective bargaining process, the league would concede allowing NHLers in Sochi in exchange for concessions from the union.
Of course, you don’t hear such talk coming from Fehr’s lips.
“There will be some ongoing discussions,” he said. “If NHL players are going to participate, it requires a three-way agreement involving the NHL, the players association and the IIHF.”
Added the NHLPA executive director: “There are a lot of players who are very interested in it. There are others who feel the potential disruption of the season, especially going seven eight nine time zones away, and the squeezing of the schedule that results at both ends from the hiatus, would not be worth it. There are other individuals within the game ... who think that, while you get a tremendous bump if they’re in North America or not too many time zones away from what the viewing audience watches, that it may not be true if it’s in the Far East or central Asia.
“So, we’ll have to see.”