Are Fehr and Bettman unnecessary problems to CBA solution?

Today is December 3, 2012. Day 79 of Lockout, Part III. Today…we consider ourselves…the unluckiest fans…on the face…of the Earth…

There has not been one single game of National Hockey League action contested since the Stanley Cup Finals concluded in Los Angeles on June 11. There have been a slew of negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players Association with little to no progress made on a new collective bargaining agreement. Even federal mediators, poor babysitters that they are, were unable to talk some sense into these two sides and get them closer to settling this labor dispute.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA chief Donald Fehr have received the brunt of the criticism from just about everyone in every corner of this continent. The fact is that Bettman and Fehr are just messengers. Figureheads. Totems. And naturally, as the lightning rods for both sides, the failures of each are reflected onto both.

What they do is represent the will of owners and players, respectively. They do not set the agenda, they simply speak on behalf and negotiate according to their employers’ interests.

Last week, Bettman was so bold as to suggest that owners and players meet without the presence of either he or Fehr and it was confirmed on Sunday evening that this will come to pass. How magnanimous.

While there appears to be little hope for any movement on the core issues that separate the league and the union (presumably because Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs will be on hand, as will NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr is also likely to attend), if a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is hammered out, for what reason would Bettman or Don Fehr still be needed? To answer that, we need to delve deeper into each man’s responsibilities.

What are the basic tasks with which the Commissioner is charged?

“End labor unrest, protect the integrity of the game of professional hockey, and preserving public confidence in the league.” (paraphrased/quoted from the NHL constitution).

As a result of three prolonged work stoppages in 18 years, the Commissioner has failed to do all three of those nebulous things to date. No question about it. One shortened season, one cancelled season, and one season that is on life support. Should this labor dispute be resolved without the presence Bettman, meaning that owners and players have brokered a deal by themselves in this meeting, please tell me why this guy makes any money at all?

Has the game of hockey grown under the man who learned his trade under the aegis of NBA Commissar David Stern? Sure. No question the man knows something about branding, expanding and increasing revenues.

So make him an executive in marketing and strategic planning, not the head of a sport currently treading water in sixth place among the American consumer. Though trained as a lawyer, Bettman has proven to be a poor mediator, and his penchant for rubbing opponents the wrong way in negotiations for the betterment of the game in terms of labor disputes is a total road block. He simply cannot manage to keep the best interests of the owners who employ him, and maintain the integrity of the game on the ice at the same time. They will always go hand in hand.

For all 30 teams, no matter how large or small their piece of the pie, to bring in revenue, they need to have the actual product on the ice. For the product to be on the ice, the players need to play. For the players to play, they cannot be locked out by the owners who hand out contracts like candy then cry poor thanks to manipulation of millions of dollars. For there to be no lockouts, the Commissioner of the NHL and the Executive Director of the NHLPA need to do their jobs and negotiate a deal that benefits both parties, not simply remain entrenched in ideologies and constantly waging war in the public sphere.

To that end, we come to Don Fehr. What exactly are his duties as Executive Director of the NHLPA?

“(B) The Executive Director shall maintain and direct the activities of the Association, subject to the annual budget of the Association.  The duties will include: engaging technical assistance and staff as are necessary for the conduct of the Association’s business; establishing salaries, fees and conditions of employment for such persons and directing them in the performance of their duties; preparing the annual budget of the Association to be presented to the Executive Board for approval at its regular June meeting, and reporting to the Board on his or her actions and the activities of staff or other  persons engaged to conduct the Association’s activities.”

(directly quoted from the NHLPA constitution)

So basically it’s to help the NHLPA continue to conduct business and stuff. Has Fehr done so? Sure, except for this year where he could have begun discussions with Bettman long before the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended. Instead, he opted to wait until the completion of the Finals to start negotiations so that all players could be present (guessing) and move to deny consent of the realignment as proposed and approved by nearly every owner way back in January.

The delay in official negotiations is marginally understandable based on how the last round went in 2004 and ’05 where the players had to capitulate and lost 24 percent of their contracted salaries, but why deny consent of realignment and then postpone CBA negotiations until the summer?

This is where you have to take issue with the way the players have handled things. Sure, Fehr’s actions are at the behest of the players, but why couldn’t he and Steve Fehr start a dialogue with Bettman and Daly during the regular season and make these meetings transparent? Perhaps the players, in a failed opening gambit, decided to delay and Fehr just stood on that assumption? And maybe both men did have meetings, but obviously they didn’t make any serious headway as it’s now December, and neither side has had their fill of not conducting business or protecting the integrity of the game or preserving public confidence in the league.

If the owners and players somehow manage to either spring negotiations forward or come to an agreement without Bettman or Fehr in the room, then it is clear that neither of these guys deserve to continue to hold their positions.

They have failed to complete all of their duties as dictated, and should be let go or reassigned within their respective organizations. Make them consultants, strategists, idea men. It doesn’t matter what title they hold, if they’re not in the room, and a new CBA is approved, it’s time for the NHL and NHLPA to move on from both of them to bigger and better things.

Roger Waters once wrote “Keep Your Filthy Hands off My Desert,” and those of us who are fed up almost three months in, are ready to say to Bettman and Fehr to keep their filthy hands off our ice.