"Let me back up," Don Fehr began, sitting in a conference room at the NHL Players' Association headquarters in Toronto. "Marvin Miller …"
This was back in January, long before the lockout. I sat down with Fehr to discuss his preparations for collective bargaining, to see if there were parallels to his approach in baseball.
Fehr had spent a quarter century leading the Major League Baseball Players Association before becoming the executive director of the NHLPA. He had amassed his own experience and credentials. He was his own man with his own mind.
But the fifth and sixth words he used were Miller's first and last names, and he kept coming back to Miller, his predecessor and mentor at the MLBPA. He had worked under Miller as the MLBPA general counsel from 1977-82 and remained close to him afterward. He spoke of him with not only respect, but reverence.
Miller died Tuesday. He was 95. In a statement released by the MLBPA, Fehr said: "Without question, Marvin had more positive influence on Major League Baseball than any other person in the last half of the 20th century."
In short, during his tenure from 1966-82, Miller helped the players stand up to the owners for the first time. He helped them build the strongest union in sports. He helped them win free agency, higher pay and better benefits. He did it all while the MLB painted him as a troublemaker. Though the business has thrived, he is not in the Hall of Fame.
But his influence reached beyond baseball, and it goes directly to hockey right now as Fehr leads the NHLPA through this lockout. Fehr learned much from Miller, like simple skepticism of the owners' claims, the importance of player involvement and who works for whom in a union. Fehr is still fighting for many of the same things, like free agency eligibility, arbitration rights and pensions.
I asked Fehr about a quote attributed to him in John Helyar's book "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball": "You go through The Sporting News for the last hundred years, and you will find two things are always true. You never have enough pitching, and nobody ever made money."
Fehr said he didn't remember the context, but generally, from the 1890s until about 15-20 years ago, baseball owners constantly cried poor. He mentioned two things said by MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Miller's old counterpart.
"I'll never forget when Marvin told me this," Fehr said. "He had the most mischievous look on his face. He said, 'Bowie just gave a speech that said, 'Unless we find oil wells under second base, we're all going broke.' He wants everybody to dig. That was the first one.
"And the second one was that if free agency existed in baseball, the American League would go out of business and the National League would be reduced to six teams, and it would be like the NHL. And of course, the entire history of baseball is completely the opposite. Free agency is in many respects what made the sport what it is today.
"So every once in a while in baseball, I would get frustrated when people repeated the same old litany, as if the mere fact that somebody said it meant it mattered."
These are different times, and this is a different sport. The NHLPA has access to NHL financial information. But that doesn't mean the players trust the owners' accounting, and that doesn't mean Fehr accepts the status quo or conventional thinking.
I asked Fehr why he made it a point to have players at the bargaining table in baseball and why he would do the same in hockey. That was actually my starting point.
This was his starting point: "Let me back up," he said. "Marvin Miller began the process in baseball of making sure that the constituents – the members, the players – were involved in the bargaining and were present during the meetings. And he did that because, first of all, they have a right to be there.
"There's nothing like the education you get listening to the actual exchanges rather than somebody summarizing the exchanges sometime later on. Players will very often pick up issues that staff won't, because they're out there on the ice, and in my case now, that's even more likely because I don't have a longtime hockey background.
"You can make compromises, you can make counterproposals, and it's really, really important. So when we came in, one of the things that I started talking to players about was how important it is for them to be informed, for them to talk to one another, and to participate in the process. And that means, among other things, being physically at the table and in the bargaining."
That's especially interesting now.
Fehr has been accused of creating the illusion of inclusion and transparency, while actually diffusing dissent and driving his own agenda. Because lots of players have rotated through bargaining sessions and the negotiating committee includes about 30 players, that means there is no small group with the power to set the course.
The NHL feels its message isn't getting through Fehr's filter, which is why it posted one of its proposals on its website and gave team executives a brief window to discuss it with players. The NHL feels the players have no mechanism to steer in a different direction. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly has suggested publicly that Fehr doesn't share the players' desire to get a deal done.
At the same time, veteran players – guys who have been through these things before – will tell you they have never been better informed than they are now. Fehr's door is always open. The PA holds conference calls. It even has a smartphone app.
And the view within the league is that the players pushed Fehr to make the PA's last proposal, which linked the players' share to hockey-related revenue for the first time in these negotiations. If that view is accurate, was he pushed by the players – or was he listening to them?
Another quote from January:
"There is this … I was about to say mythology, but this perspective out there about the baseball players' union, which basically says that Marvin Miller came in at a point in time in which there was nothing and had to build from scratch, and so whatever changes there were were revolutionary all the way through," Fehr said. "He was regarded by a lot of people, mostly in the media, as a revolutionary leader.
"Players will tell you he was the most practical person alive. What most people forget is the first strike – [during] which everybody was calling Marvin a communist – was something that the players voted to do over his specific recommendation to the contrary. That was in 1972, on a pension issue."
It is true that Fehr has rebuilt a broken union, and it is true that his job is to make recommendations to the players, and it is true that the players likely will choose from the options he gives them. They will follow his lead. That's why they hired him.
It is also true that Fehr loathes the salary cap system, was unafraid to fight with baseball owners and has no personal investment in hockey.
But Fehr will tell you he did not rebuild the NHLPA from scratch, despite all the problems he inherited and all the Union 101 work he did to educate the players on how the organization should operate. He will tell you hockey is a bigger business now than baseball was back then. He will tell you he works for the players. He will stress it.
And when I asked Fehr in September 2011 if he wanted this to be a revolutionary agreement or an evolutionary one, Fehr said: "Everybody understands that trying to change something radically, unless both sides start from the premise that they want to, is much more problematic in terms of getting an agreement done than not."
In other words, he understands the situation on a practical level. He inherited the salary cap. Challenging it would come at a high cost to his constituents.
There is a fear that Fehr wants to become another Marvin Miller, a revolutionary leader. There is a fear that all this was orchestrated, so he could challenge the salary cap, so he could be the first union boss to get rid of one. Why else would Fehr take this job? What's in it for him?
I have no doubt Fehr is using his aura to his advantage, and I think it's possible he could go all the way. If mediation fails, if the PA disclaims interest or decertifies, this could blow up. He could go to court, challenge the cap and try to establish the free market in which he believes. The owners better calculate whether it's worth the risk, especially when the sides are so close on so many issues.
But what if Fehr wants to be another Marvin Miller, the "most practical person alive"? Is he really misleading the players about the owners' proposals, when other staff members and players are in the room, when memos aren't the only form of internal communication? If the players want to decertify, or if they want their leaders to disclaim interest, it will happen. But if the players really want to make a deal, will Fehr really not make it – even if he disagrees? Really?
What if what's in it for him is the satisfaction of helping players who had been pushed around stand up for themselves? What if it's helping them build a strong union so they can fight for their interests as effectively as possible? It took years of struggle for Miller and the MLBPA to make so much progress. What if Fehr is helping the NHLPA take its first steps?
"When I started in baseball, Marvin was there, and I was 29," Fehr said in September 2011, pointing out he was in the same age range as the players then and needs to work harder to relate to them now. "I'm 40 years older than some of these guys, so it's different.
"They've got to see that I'm not just some Dutch uncle that's telling them how to live their lives, another old fart, and that's what makes it hard to get them to understand that I work for them and not the other way around."
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