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Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players union, spoke with the media after labor talks in Toronto in August.

Chris Young, Associated Press

Blount: Fehr gives union edge, so lockout could be lengthy

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT
  • Star Tribune
  • September 18, 2012 - 11:13 AM

When Devin Setoguchi was asked Monday about the solidarity among the NHL's locked-out players, he cast a glance behind him. "You can tell even from the skates out here,'' the Wild winger said, as about 40 players scrimmaged on a rink at the St. Louis Park Rec Center. "We've got guys from 10 or 12 different teams. It's the same thing with the union. Everyone's in it together.''

That's due largely to the leadership of Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Association. And it's the biggest reason why Setoguchi and his brethren could be skating at rec centers through Thanksgiving, Christmas and Groundhog Day. The NHLPA finally has an experienced, brilliant and fearless negotiator at its helm, one who understands both his constituents and his adversary. That's good news for the players and potentially very bad news for those who just want the puck to drop.

On Day 2 of the lockout, several Wild players practiced with fellow NHLers who make their offseason homes in Minnesota. From Setoguchi to Paul Martin to Mikko Koivu, they expressed the same sentiment, often in the same words.

They want to play. They also want a fair contract, and they feel confident in Fehr's ability to secure one. That unity, cultivated by Fehr's openness and clarity of purpose, gives the players a far stronger hand than they've had in past labor negotiations. They believe patience will pay off, which means the rest of us should be prepared to be patient, too.

"[Fehr has] been there before, and he knows what he's doing,'' said Martin, a former Gophers defenseman who plays for Pittsburgh. "And we all know where we stand. The last time [during the 2004-05 lockout], there were a lot of different opinions. We weren't all on the same page.

"One of the main points he made to us was that if we were going to go through with this, we had to be prepared to be locked out, with the worst-case scenario that we would miss a whole season if that's what it takes to get a fair deal. This time, we're a lot more unified.''

The players deserve the services of a pro like Fehr, if only because of the wretched history of their union. The first executive director of the NHLPA, Alan Eagleson, served prison time for fraud and embezzlement. His successor, Bob Goodenow, promised to never accept a salary cap; when the players' resolve fractured during the season-long lockout of 2004-05, the owners got their cap, and Goodenow lost his job.

Three others briefly kept the seat warm for Fehr, who was hired in December 2010. In him, the NHLPA got both an impressive résumé and a leadership style that promoted the unity essential to contract talks.

During Fehr's 26 years as head of the baseball players' union, salaries rose from an average of $290,000 to $3.2 million. In his role with the NHLPA, Fehr has communicated clearly and frequently with players and involved more of them in discussions, giving them a feeling of empowerment. Tom Lynn, a player agent and former assistant general manager of the Wild, has known Fehr since 1995 and called him "open, firm and honest.''

Lynn said those qualities will help the players avoid the divisions that developed in their ranks during the last lockout. It also won't hurt, Lynn said, that Fehr knows NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman well. The poisonous relationship between Bettman and Goodenow contributed to the season-sinking lockout eight years ago, and the tone of the talks this time reportedly has been more civil.

Koivu was among 300 players who went to New York last week for a meeting with Fehr, including an impressive photo op in which many of the league's biggest stars stood behind their leader.

"We learned a lot,'' Koivu said. "Just the way he runs the meetings and his knowledge of everything going on, we're confident with him, and that helps us a lot.''

All that has altered the balance of power in the NHLPA-NHL relationship. The players' collective will is being tested already; Martin said their first instinct is to do whatever needs to be done to get on the ice, and they do not want to hurt the fans or the people who depend upon NHL games for their livelihoods.

This time, though, players are confident Fehr will help them maintain the strength of their convictions. In other words: Be prepared for a long wait.

"Normally, we're a team of 23,'' Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom said. "But now we are a team of 700. This is about future NHL players. It's not about today. It's about tomorrow.''

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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