Naylor: Measuring up Bettman and Fehr in CBA showdown

Dave Naylor
9/12/2012 3:07:56 PM
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Of all the sports labour showdowns, there has never been a matchup of leadership quite like this one.

Gary Bettman - nearly 20 years as commissioner of the National Hockey League, a veteran of two previous extended lockouts and the man who forced the players to accept something they swore they never would - a salary cap - by canceling an entire season.

And Donald Fehr, who led the 1994 players strike that wiped out the World Series, a man so steeped in the history of sports labour that he is actually part of it having helped establish the rights of baseball players to become free agents back in 1976 in a decision that changed the sports world forever.

Thirty-six years later and with seven baseball collective agreements on his resume (five as executive director and two as general counsel), he's back for one more, trying to unite hockey players in a stand against an opposition that crushed them the last time around.

Talk to those who know them and the words that jump out most often about both men are "smart" and "experienced" and "fearless."

Fehr may not know the left-wing lock from the neutral zone trap, but suffice to say he's a deft stick-handler when it comes to labour negotiation.

As is Bettman, who enters his third negotiation, and possibly his third consecutive lockout, emboldened by having held a heterogeneous group of owners firmly united the last time, despite the loss of a season.

Hockey fans may not like or always trust the commissioner, but the owners do.

"My over-riding impression is how good a job Gary did communicating with me through that entire process," said former Atlanta Thrashers owner Bruce Levenson, who was involved with Bettman during the 2004-05 labour negotiation. "He held that room together and did it almost through over-communicating because I assume he was putting in the same effort with other owners."

That ability to keep the owners informed and educated on goings-on during the last lockout proved to be a critical advantage for Bettman.

"I think it was absolutely central," added Levenson.

The difference is that this time, Fehr will bring a the same dynamic to the other side - something he has emphasized since stepping in the door of the NHLPA two years ago and which will be on display in New York where as many as 300 players are attending union meetings.

As for the actual negotiation process between Bettman and Fehr, no one expects it to reach the heights of acrimony it did during the last round of Bettman-Goodenow.

Part of that may be because of Fehr's style which differs from that of his predecessor. Where Goodenow was intense and often mercurial, Fehr is described as being much a much cooler presence, able to deal with matters in a more detached manner.

"Bob's style was to intimidate so it was 'man the battle stations,' where Don is a very different operator," said former Buffalo Sabres minority owner Larry Quinn, who was involved in the last lockout.

Bettman, meanwhile, is described by player agent Ian Pulver (who was part of the players' negotiating committee last time around) as, "as passionate as they come" when negotiating, capable of being confrontational and "certainly not afraid to exercise his economic weapons to attempt to gain leverage.

"That's what a lockout is," said Pulver. "There's no other way to describe it. He's done it two times and that's the only way to get what the owners want."

While it may be overstating things to suggest the last lockout was personal between Goodenow and Bettman, there's no doubt that their years of ideological battling over the same issue - the salary cap - built-up animosity on both sides.

"Both sides seem to be spending time to understand each other where last time there wasn't that effort," said Quinn. "They couldn't agree on information."

Fehr, however, tends not only to negotiate by defending the financial turf of his clients, but also by handing the other side solutions to the problems they claim can't be solved without the players making substantial monetary concessions.

Baseball eventually adopted the increased revenue sharing model Fehr had been pushing, as well as other ideas he had championed such as expanded playoffs and extra wild card teams to grow the pie. In hockey this summer, the players' first proposal to the NHL wasn't just about drawing a line but also redrawing the current system to address the owners concerns about the viability of small markets.

"He made the owners think a little bit more," said former baseball player representative Darren Fletcher. "And Don's not afraid to tell the owners `you got this thing screwed up,' A lot of times owners felt like Don was trying to run the whole show, telling them what to do."

Bettman, however, has never been known as someone who likes being told what to do and as Quinn says, "if he has a weakness, it's that he can be a little bit defensive."

The critical question for fans is whether the dynamic at the negotiating table is good or bad for the fans this time around?

As smart men with loads of experience at the table, and no past scores to settle, it shouldn't be beyond the means of either Fehr or Bettman to make a deal without putting a season into jeopardy.

And yet it's also impossible to ignore that each was centrally involved in the only two work stoppages in pro sports history that resulted in a championship not being played. In each of those instances, 1994-95 in baseball and 2004-05 in hockey, Fehr and Bettman achieved their stated goals - and in their minds - improved their respective sports for the long term.

Is there room for two smartest men in the same room? Over the coming days, weeks and possibly months, hockey fans are going to find out.

Tale of the Tape

Sizing Up Gary Bettman Donald Fehr
Age 60 64
Education Cornell Indiana
Activites Skiing, Sailing Reading Books
Political Leaning Independent Democrat
CBAs 2 5
Strikes 0 2
Lockouts 2 1
Career Achievement Salary Cap in 2005 Avoiding Cap in 1994
Rabid Sports Fan Yes No

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