The undisputed heavyweight champion of collective bargaining, former MLBPA Director Donald Fehr (above).

Donald Fehr, who for months has worked for the NHLPA as an unpaid consultant, was unanimously voted the Director of the NHLPA yesterday, in what must be viewed as an ominous sign for NHL owners who bumble along with commissioner Gary Bettman, and stick their hands in the player’s pockets at every turn, or so they think.

Many believe the first shot in the battle for the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement was fired this summer when the league defeated the union’s grievance over Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract with the Devils. Saturday, the players fired back – and with a big hired gun.

As expected, members voted overwhelmingly to appoint former baseball union head Donald Fehr as NHLPA Executive Director.

With the current collective bargaining agreement expiring in September of 2012, it is a sign that the union is preparing to play hardball. In a sport still recovering from the loss of the 2004-05 season because of a lockout, Fehr’s leadership of the baseball union during its 1994-95 strike raises concerns about yet another NHL season ruined by labor unrest.

Fehr tried to calm those concerns for the time being. “We treat a work stoppage, a strike, as a last resort. You consider it only when all alternatives failed,” Fehr said. “We certainly hope, and I certainly believe that the owners will treat it as a last resort, too. And so, if you would ask me if I anticipate a stoppage, the answer is no. And certainly hope we won’t have one. I am not going predict what is going to happen in negotiations.”

Foolishly, the NHLPA parted ways with their best ever Executive Director, labor shark Bob Goodenow, who navigated the league through a 10 day strike in 1992, a protracted lockout in 1994-1995, and a messy labor dispute that caused the unthinkable–the cancellation of the 2004-2005 NHL season.  Why?  Because Gary Bettman, a feverish proponent of hardball who loves nothing more than going to bat for small time cities and fraud owners who don’t deserve franchises, continually insists on hard salary restrictions to protect teams like the Nashville Predators, who scrape the bottom of the salary threshold and complain over every cent out of pocket.

Does Nashville really deserve a team?  Tampa Bay?  Florida?  Atlanta?  Bettman was happy to take the franchise start-up fees from these ownership groups and then watched them all flounder financially, while severely diluting the talent pool in the league to the point where they have had to change several basic rules of the game to promote scoring because scoring talent is so severely diluted that for a while, a team was lucky to have one legitimate scoring threat.  Then Bettman went to work on the players–attempting to basically strip them of a major slice of the salaries they earned–to help teams like the above mentioned while big market teams who are interested in putting out a quality product were constricted by a hard salary cap.

Goodenow was so sharp that he pushed for a clause that would see 10 year pros earning below the league average become unrestricted free agents.  When the clause went into effect, Bettman failed to realize that these unrestricted free agents would then receive greater compensation, thereby pulling up average salaries, and in turn, create more 10 year pros who would qualify for UFA status.  Bettman was steamed at having been out maneuvered, and was giddy when the players turned on Goodenow toward the end of the armageddon labor dispute that the league allowed to cancel out an entire season. 

Bettman has been true to the owners–especially small market owners–to a fault.  Has any league in the history of professional sport seen more owners go to federal prison?  On Bettman’s watch alone, we have seen fraudulent con artists suck as Bruce McNall, Dean Spanos, and Peter Pocklington go to jail, and in the case of Spanos, the league did not properly investigate his background and allowed him to buy the Islanders despite the fact the man had no money.

Bettman is in the major leagues now however, and frankly, he will most certainly be over-matched by Fehr, upon whose watch MLB salaries have become grotesquely bloated.  Fehr, so adept at out maneuvering the owners, refused to concede to steroid and amphetamine testing for several years, despite the fact that such drug use is illegal under the national laws of the nations where baseball is played.  The anonymous drug testing policy he instituted was a stroke of genius when it came to protecting player image and average salary, because steroid induced statistics were good for player contracts.

As for the NHL players, these guys are probably the most down to earth, hard working, for the love of the game, major professional athletes in the world.  And Bettman has grossly mismanaged the game’s television potential and international financial growth quotients, which Fehr, and his arrmy of publicists is sure to hammer him for.  Bettman is out of his league here.  Fehr has studied the NHL revenue streams and collective bargaining agreements since the minute he stepped down from the MLBPA in December 2009, and has gotten an even closer look as an unpaid consultant now for months. 

And Fehr has said that he will now basically dissect the entire league prior to agreeing to open negotiations with the NHL in the spring.  We’d hate to lose hockey again, but we are staunchly pro union here, and we seriously doubt that in this economy that teams or players will be willing to shut down a billion dollar industry.  We view the Fehr hire as an enormous get for the players.  He is just the man to get the players a good deal, and we have a healthy suspicion that both the NFLPA and NBAPA will wish they had rang him up as labor actions loom in both those leagues.

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