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Lichtenstein: NHL Owners Have Everything To Fear From Fehr Himself

Donald Fehr (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Donald Fehr (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
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You better get used to those replays of the 2012 playoffs, Devils fans, for that might be all we’ll get to see of the boys in red for quite some time.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sounded stunned on Thursday when his latest proposal to end the lockout and get the games back on the ice was not universally embraced by Players Association executive director Donald Fehr.   After all, Bettman and his Merry Men of Monopolists have been used to getting their way in these impasses for, oh, forever.

However, the players were ready this time, securing a ringer in advance of these negotiations — Fehr.  He’s a pit bull who has an equivalent lack of shame when it comes to sports customers.

This is a man who had his players WALK OUT ON THE FANS in the middle of a Major League Baseball season.  World War II wasn’t enough of a national calamity to cancel a World Series, but the prospect of a salary cap was.  Fehr may believe he was vindicated in a court of law when it was determined that the owners were bargaining in bad faith, but the cost was devastating to the fans of those teams just as the pennant races were heating up.  Fehr didn’t care.

And what brought the fans back to the ballpark after a short separation?  Baseballs flying over fences in record numbers.  It was done illegally through performance-enhancing drugs, for which Fehr (this time with the tacit approval of MLB commissioner Bud Selig) did his best to dispute and then water down subsequent testing.  Now, whenever any player shows a marked improvement in power, our collective first impression is that the player must be juicing.  Thanks again, Fehr, for replacing our joy of watching athletic achievement with your cynicism.

The point of all this is not to take the owners’ side in this tiff.  The owners, with Bettman as their puppet, forced this lockout, just as they did in 2004 when they cancelled an entire season to further relegate their sport to a reduced status.

Extortion is their principal business weapon.

“Build me a new arena or else we’ll move.”

“Place this cable channel (that I happen to also own) on a basic tier or your customers won’t get to see their local teams play.” (As Phil Mushnick of the New York Post often reports, how many of you have received rebates from your cable/satellite operator for NHL games not played, even though you paid for them?)

“Take this deal now or else we’ll take our pucks home and subsequent offers will be worse.”

That last one used to work wonders on the players, as most analysts concluded that the owners scored big victories in the previous two lockouts.  The players conceded 24 percent of their contracts and a salary cap following the 2004-05 lockout.

The prospect of another overwhelming defeat was enough for the players to finally bring in someone with strong labor credentials to lead the next round of talks.  Previous directors have run the gamut, from corrupt (Alan Eagleson) to inept (Ted Saskin).   Fehr was not going to be intimidated, and he will not settle for any old deal.  He plays to win.

I’m guessing Bettman figured that the owners’ proposal on Tuesday was a sufficient base to work around, with the 50-50 revenue split between players and owners his best public relations move since he was hired in 1993.  Whoops.

To Fehr, that just became the new floor for which he will now negotiate up.  None of the union’s three counterproposals would likely get to the 50-50 split by the end of the contract, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

And so it will go.  Two sides, now equally intransigent, will battle for every one of our pennies while another season is headed down the tubes.

The owners have made a litany of errors to get us here — from the ridiculously inadequate revenue sharing among the franchises that widens the competitive gap between the larger and smaller markets — all the way to their heavy-handed initial offer prior to this lockout.

Their biggest mistake, however, was their inability to see Fehr in their headlights.

How much of the blame for this lockout do you put on Donald Fehr? Share your thoughts and comments in the section below…