BET ON FEHR, NOT BETTMAN

By Murray Chass

December 13, 2012

Welcome to the N.H.L., a.k.a. the Neanderthal Hockey League. You may know its commissioner, Gary Bettman, by another name, too, Fred Flintstone. Or am I insulting good ole Fred?

Before proceeding any further, let me explain why I am demeaning a baseball Web site by writing about hockey. The other day I was asked to do an interview on a Toronto radio show. The host, Dave Naylor of ESPN Radio Toronto, wanted me to talk about Donald Fehr, the head of the hockey players union, whom I covered for years when he was first general counsel and then executive director of the baseball union.Don Fehr NHLPA 225

I think I learned more on the show than I offered because I have not followed the hockey negotiations and found hard to believe what Bettman and the owners are saying and doing.

“It’s 1930s stuff,” said a veteran union man whom I asked about the league’s tactics. The man I wanted talk to I couldn’t because Marvin Miller died a couple of weeks ago. I can hear him laughing derisively, though, upon hearing what I had heard.

Miller heard the same things from the baseball owners in his first couple of negotiations with them. By the time the union had won those negotiations, the owners knew who Miller was and what they faced in future talks.

Like the hockey owners, though, they stubbornly stuck to their unrealistic demands and forced two disastrous strikes – the 50-day work stoppage that interrupted the 1981 season and the 1994 strike that forced Commissioner Bud Selig to cancel the World Series for the first time.

Selig and the owners, however, eventually saw the light, resigned themselves to never getting a salary cap, as the other sports had, and negotiated one agreement after another peacefully – three in a row, a figurative hat trick in hockey lingo – and figured out labor peace was more profitable than labor war.

Major League Baseball’s annual revenue has soared beyond $7 billion, and baseball is so awash in money that the two sides don’t need to fight over caps and taxes.

The N.H.L., meanwhile, remains in the dark ages of labor relations. Bettman has made sure they stay there with no apparent emergence or advance in sight.

According to what I learned from the radio interview – and I have no reason to think the truth is otherwise – these are the problems Fehr has created and how the owners view their damnable foe:

  • Fehr is the object of the owners’ disdain.
  • He is in over his head in the negotiations.
  • People on the owners’ side say his problem is he doesn’t understand hockey.
  • He outraged Bettman by trying to negotiate off a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
  • There can be no deal with Fehr at the bargaining table.
  • Fehr is leading the players down the garden path.
  • He is taking it further than the players want to go.
  • He is out of step with what the players want.

I have no reason to doubt that the owners view Fehr with disdain. He is not giving them what they want. That stance invites disdain even though as the man hired to protect the players’ right to earn a fair share of league revenue, Fehr is simply doing what the players hired him to do.

Is he over his head in the negotiations? Bettman has been N.H.L. commissioner for 20 years. I don’t know if he was involved in the league’s labor negotiations before he became commissioner, but it doesn’t matter either way.

Fehr became general counsel of the baseball union in 1977. When Bettman became N.H.L. commissioner, Fehr had already had 16 years of experience in dealing with labor matters, and he learned and did his job under the master, Marvin Miller.

As a senior vice president and general counsel of the National Basketball Association, Bettman learned under David Stern. I knew Marvin Miller as well as almost anyone, and David Stern is no Marvin Miller.

If Stern hadn’t had Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the N.B.A. might still be a minor league. Stern was lucky; luck had nothing to do with Miller’s success.

Nevertheless, Bettman is a David Stern wannabe. He doesn’t appreciate the fact that he hasn’t been able to do in the N.H.L. what Stern has done in the N.B.A., however he has done it.

Despite his questionable leadership, Bettman has had things his way under previous union leaders. He has run roughshod over previous union leaders. But with what effect on the league?

The New York Times had an excellent article this week by its hockey writer, Jeff Z. Klein about the negative impact Bettman’s lockout strategy has had on the league. Bettman’s lockouts, Klein wrote, have cost the league nearly 10 percent of its regular-season games during Bettman’s tenure.

The missed games, in turn, experts told Klein, have undermined the league’s potential revenue growth.

Gary Bettman 225I suspect that when Bettman was an infant and starting to talk, before he learned to say mama and dada, he learned the word lockout. “Baby wanna lockout?” his parents asked him.

If that was the way he grew up, can he be blamed for being king of the lockout? Bettman doesn’t negotiate; he just locks out and expects the players to bow to his demands.

Well, Gary, that’s not how Fehr operates. Miller didn’t teach him to give in to the owners’ demands. Fehr was the baseball union’s local counsel in Kansas City in 1976 when Richard Moss, the union’s brilliant general counsel, successfully beat back the owners’ appeal of the arbitration decision that created free agency.

Fehr apparently has gotten under Bettman’s skin. Naylor, the Toronto radio host, told me Bettman was “almost quivering he was so angry at Fehr when he stepped to the microphone” for a news conference at which he addressed the take-it-or-leave-it offer. “A lot of people who have covered Bettman a long time had never seen that kind of reaction,” Naylor said.

How audacious was it for Fehr to make a counterproposal? If for no other reason, it was good because it antagonized Bettman. But did Fehr violate some labor rule that prohibits a counterproposal to any kind of offer? He did not, and since the idea supposedly is to get an agreement, why should any offer be dismissed?

It was pure Bettman arrogance saying who is this newcomer to challenge me? Instead of trying to make a deal that would benefit the league, Bettman is trying to hammer Fehr into submission so he would accept a deal that would benefit the owners.

If the owners really think there can be no deal with Fehr at the table, they have another thought coming. They won’t get a deal if Fehr isn’t at the table. Maybe Canadian owners don’t understand United States labor law, but unions have the right to be represented by whomever they want. The employer has no right to say whom they will or will not negotiate with.

Furthermore, if the owners think Fehr is in over his head or is leading the players down the garden path, they are fooling themselves. If Bettman has told them this fiction, they should find someone else to represent them at the bargaining table.

Fehr is a baseball guy who doesn’t understand hockey? It’s not very likely that the hockey players would agree with that canard. Anyway, what’s to understand? No negotiator needs experience in hockey to know what it means to cut players’ salaries.

If Bettman and the owners want to reject Fehr as the players’ negotiator, they do so at their own peril. They will only strengthen the players’ resolve. Athletes in any sport are the most competitive people in life.

If the players don’t like what Fehr is doing, they can rein him in. They have the right to speak up and tell him what they want. If they don’t like what their leader is doing, they will let him know. They knew what they were getting when they hired Fehr. That’s why they hired him.

The owners, on the other hand, might ask if Bettman is supposed to be so good why are they always embroiled in lockouts and labor disputes instead of growing their revenue?

I would conclude by saying Bettman has met his match, but I think the man is overmatched.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.