Pasts of Bettman, Fehr will shape hockey's future
Gary Bettman's lost hockey season is Donald Fehr's wrecked World Series — legacies that haunt the respective heads of the NHL and Players' Association.
Forget the record revenue generated last season by an NHL that can claim a salary-cap system and a major network broadcast partner. Pay no mind to the organization and unity that only three years ago was unimaginable to anybody associated with the union.
The Stanley Cup was not awarded in 2005. The World Series was not played in 1994.
Bettman, NHL commissioner since 1993, and Fehr, two years into a tenure as NHLPA executive director but owner of that same position with the baseball Players Association from 1986-2009, are as infamous for what they have lost as much as they are famous for what they have gained for the sports with which they are most associated.
“Big names, big winners, and they're guys fans feel pretty strong about,” said Lynn Lashbrook, president of Sports Management World Wide in Portland, Ore. “For whatever the thinking might be about those two, people should consider there is a good reason those guys have their jobs. They know what they're doing.”
NHL games are canceled through November because owners and players cannot agree how to fairly split record revenue. Fans are left to wonder what Bettman and Fehr are doing to a sport whose future seemed bright with a championship club based in Los Angeles, a Winter Classic between Original Six markets Detroit and Toronto and the return to health of the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, the face of the league.
From that to this
Hockey at its highest level in North America is on the brink of succumbing to another labor battle, one being waged only seven years after the NHL became the first major professional sports league to cancel a season because of such strife.
The 2004-05 season that never happened was supposed to be the NHL version of Armageddon. Bettman had changed league bylaws to give him control. He needed only eight of 30 clubs to back his push for a lockout, and all 30 did because owners wanted a cost-control friendly salary cap system.
“He was hired with one instruction: Get a cap,” said Jonathon Gatehouse, a Canadian journalist who authored “The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever.”
“The first time (a 1994-95 lockout) he failed. Gary wasn't going to fail a second time.”
Bettman did not fail, and a perceived NHL victory when a new labor agreement was reached in July 2005 almost crumbled the Players' Association.
Fehr never wanted to take over a fractured NHLPA, Penguins winger Matt Cooke said. After Bob Goodenow's 13-year reign as executive director ended in 2005, four men held the post — two on an interim basis — before Fehr accepted the job in December 2010.
“He said he didn't know anything about hockey,” Cooke said, recalling a meeting with Fehr in 2009. “I thought, ‘Who cares? Look what you've done with baseball.' ”
Major League Baseball has not lost a game because of a labor dispute since the 1994 strike cut short the season.
Still, as Cooke and other Penguins noted, baseball is the sport without a salary cap and with lesser-income teams getting financial assistance from richer brethren, not because of a 50/50 revenue split.
“(Fehr's) reputation as the guy who gets what his players want, that is deserved,” said Larry Silverman, who spent 10 years as the Pirates' general counsel. “If the NHLPA wanted to show the NHL it was serious, it could not have hired somebody better than Don. He was the dream hire.”
Neither Fehr nor Bettman agreed to be interviewed for this story.
The labor deal between the NHL and NHLPA was 19 months from expiring when the union hired Fehr. By then, owners had grown tired of assuming all costs of running the game and collecting only 43 percent of revenue. Bettman had delivered a lot in the wake of Armageddon — the cap, a TV deal with NBC, the lucrative Winter Classic — but owners craved more.
Upon his hiring, Fehr told players he needed a year to study the game. He meant the business of hockey, and he concluded that business was better than players realized.
Negotiations between the NHL and union did not begin until this past June. Owners asked for concessions. Players were agreeable to discussions but suggested talking while playing under terms of the old labor agreement.
Bettman has shut down the NHL three times. Fehr, dating to his hiring as general counsel by former MLBPA head Marvin Miller in 1977, has been part of six work stoppages (this NHL lockout and a lockout and four strikes with baseball).
Both men follow a playbook that has worked wonders for his employers.
Bettman is a student of the labor game played successfully by his mentor, NBA commissioner David Stern. The methodology includes preventing players from working, setting deadlines and trusting that a small group of really rich owners — none of whom will be allowed to speak their minds publicly without penalty of a stiff fine — will stick together longer than hundreds of really rich players.
Fehr wrote the playbook for sports unions. His baseball union was, and hockey union is, run the way Steve Jobs ran Apple. Communication is constant, structure is prized, expression encouraged. Pressures from the outside world, whether in the form of public relations or opposing deadlines, are no factor.
“Fehr is familiar with every kind of strike, lockout, whatever you want to call a work stoppage,” Silverman said. “He has control over his membership. You can count on that.”
Former NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider said he did not know what to expect from Fehr during their first face-to-face meeting. The men and their wives shared dinner — Fehr drinking a Coors Light — and the subject of sports never came up.
Also, Schneider said, one thing that never comes up in conversations with Fehr is the World Series' cancellation due to the '94 strike.
“He never talks about it,” said Schneider, now a special assistant to Fehr with the NHLPA. “I'm only guessing, but that's probably because he cares so much about doing right by players, and he knows that players took a hit for that.”
Crosby, as celebrated globally as any NHL player since Wayne Gretzky, has not hesitated when asked by Fehr to serve as a front-and-center face at recent negotiation sessions.
Crosby first met Fehr two years ago. Their relationship formed over the past 18 months, Crosby said.
Conversely, Crosby has carried the weight of the league on his shoulders since joining the NHL when it returned from the last lockout. He and Bettman rarely have engaged in lengthy conversations.
On the line
If Fehr is viewed as a baseball guy working with hockey players, Bettman cannot shake the knock — mostly from Canadians — that he is not a hockey guy.
“That's what the people in my country say,” Gatehouse said. “But when it comes to the business of hockey, he knows it better than anyone.”
The NHL was a $400 million business when Bettman was hired. Revenues hit a record $3.3 billion last season.
Fehr may have unified players that only recently were easily divided by agents and their own interests, but Bettman has used the past seven years of never-before-seen growth to bank clout with influential owners such as Boston's Jeremy Jacobs and Philadelphia's Ed Snider.
“The NHL has become a very sophisticated business under Gary,” Gatehouse said. “Despite the lockouts, sponsors trust Gary. Owners really trust Gary.”
Hockey fans likely care neither about Bettman nor Fehr, only about when the sport will return. The best reason for optimism that this season won't be canceled is neither man wants a second big loss as part of his legacy.
“They have both had the biggest disappointments of their careers — hockey an entire season, baseball the World Series,” said James Dworkin, chancellor of Purdue University North Central in Indiana and publisher of 50 articles and two books on industrial and labor relations.
“You can look at what is going on with hockey and say, ‘They will do it again because they did it before.' But these two men are smart enough to know that cannot happen.
“You can't lose something big twice.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5635.