You knew it was trouble as soon as the NHLPA announced it would put out the results of their investigation into the union’s handling of Kyle Beach on a Friday. It’s surprising that organizations haven’t figured out that everyone sees through a Friday newsdump. That suspicion only grew exponentially as things were delayed by some sort of “outage,” Oh, they wanted to release the news closer to 5 p.m.? You don’t say?
As my colleague Grace McDermott so ably covered, the NHLPA was able to exonerate itself, miraculously, pointing to coincidences and miscommunications that would have made the writers of the second season of Arrested Development roll their eyes. Never mind that if a system is in place that causes things like this to fall through the cracks simply because no one knows who to talk to about what, that’s negligence.
But it leads to the question of what it is the NHLPA and Donald Fehr actually do.
The Beach affair is the loudest now and the most disturbing. If a union can’t protect or help a player, and prevent future ones, from being so wronged, then it has failed its basic purpose. Where else was Beach to go? What will the next player feel when he sees this report? Does anyone really believe they can get the help they need from the union, whose sole purpose is to aid its members?
Fehr was brought into the NHLPA in 2012 when the CBA negotiations were heating up before the 2012-2013 season. The players wanted an attack dog, feeling they had gotten completely rolled over in 2005, leaving them not only with a salary cap they said they’d never accept but having lost out on an entire season.
The players ended the 2005 negotiations with a cap tied to 54 percent of league revenues, and the owners seven years later came for an even split. The players brought in Fehr to be a much better strategist and fighter than Bob Goodenow was in the previous negotiations. And the players got…a 50-50 split for the salary cap. It was clear what the owners were after from their first proposal in the fall of 2012, which called for players to only get 46 percent of hockey related revenue. But that just happened to be four percentage points below 50, when the players at the time were getting four points above. The agreement that saved the 2013 season pegged it right in the middle. The PA had a hired gun who … gave the owners everything they were after.
About the only concession of any meaning that the PA won was that teams were able to add an eighth year to offers to their own free agents, but other teams couldn’t. Fehr didn’t get any sort of NBA-style exceptions to get mid-level players more money, the ones who get truly squeezed by the cap. Bird exceptions? Pffft, never even discussed. He even let in this ridiculous cap-recapture clause, which punished teams for contracts that were signed under a different system. It hamstrung both GMs and players from getting out from under situations that were no longer workable, and gave us hilarious scenarios like Marian Hossa the Coyote. There were other changes in revenue sharing and other things beneath the surface, but nothing monumental.
The latest CBA was signed under the duress of the pandemic, but once again what did Fehr and the union gain for their players? The split is still the same. There are no exceptions for veteran players. Players get to free agency when they already did. And the cap is frozen for years, something the owners demanded without much of a pushback from the players. And both CBAs signed under Fehr’s leadership have escrow, something the players have bitched about four minutes after ratifying each deal. All they got in return was a guarantee to go to the Olympics… which they didn’t go to anyway. And that affects what percentage of the membership?
Beyond CBA negotiations, the union has struggled to protect players on the ice. The Tom Wilsons of the world can fly around trying to fill his duffel bag with detached heads, and yet there’s no push from the PA for major rules changes to protect the majority. Watch the utter mayhem the playoffs can descend into and wonder who is looking out for who. The Department of Player Safety is still headed by a former goon. Headshots still run rampant, and suspensions and fines remain laughable. It seems the NHLPA can’t, or won’t, protects its players in any arena.
So Donald Fehr didn’t really “win” any negotiations. He failed Kyle Beach, when he absolutely couldn’t. Players still don’t have the protection they need on the ice, nor off it. What is it, you would say Donald, you do here?