Sunday Hockey Notes

Fehr on steadier ground as head of players union

By Kevin Paul Dupont
December 26, 2010

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Donald Fehr, officially named last Saturday as the NHL Players Association’s latest executive director, conducted a conference call with the media that afternoon and spent roughly a half-hour disclosing next to nothing substantive.

No surprise, of course, because union agreements aren’t overtly negotiated through the media, especially via conference calls. Your faithful puck chronicler senses your shock and dismay. Key negotiators and their minions on both sides of the table sell the collective bargaining agreement to the media over time, often via direct phone calls or small gatherings (read: barrooms), and eventually a deal gets chiseled out and everybody (sans the media, of course) gets back to banking their millions and hailing one another as fellows well met. Bully for that.

Fehr, in contrast to how he handled his long tenure as the imperious head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, actually attempted a tiny bit of humor in his inaugural session with the hockey media.

“I grew up in Kansas City,’’ said Fehr, “and no one would accuse me of being willing to go on skates without a doctor close by.’’

Fehr, 62, has a lot of healing to do in his new gig, and he is truly one of the lucky ones, not having a prior formal relationship with what for decades has been the laughingstock of pro sports unions. We all know the parade of horribles and risibles: Alan Eagleson ultimately being sent off to jail, Bob Goodenow failing to have anything remotely resembling a “Plan B’’ that might have saved some of the $1.5 billion in lost wages during the 2004-05 lockout, and more recently the disgraceful actions of a small number of players and administrators that led to the junta-like firing of Paul Kelly just days before 2009-10 training camp.

The union, by the way, commissioned a thorough investigation of the internal subterfuge connected to Kelly’s dismissal. To date, only a select few players have been apprised of those findings. We can only assume that not enough members care to know, which is often the case in labor unions. The workers look first and foremost at their own lot in life, which is usually based on the net amount printed on their paychecks, and leave the rest to “faith in the system.’’

The question those players should be asking now, though, is why haven’t they all learned the findings of that investigation? Why the lack of transparency? No matter the results, they paid for them, and they are entitled to know. Frankly, prior to naming a new executive director, they should have had the sense to ask what happened to the old one. But again, their wallets carried the day, and now they will look to Fehr to make those wallets heavier.

Along with the press release making official the long-anticipated hiring of Fehr came the long-anticipated word that the union’s constitution was revamped. That overhaul began at the same time the investigation into Kelly’s firing was commissioned. No coincidence. It was that very same document, with its many loopholes, that afforded such easy access to stage the coup against Kelly.

“The previous constitution appeared to me, and to a lot of people, to be a bit of an overreaction to the very real internal difficulties that the organization had suffered,’’ said Fehr, referencing a document that was shaped to counter Eagleson’s misdeeds. “And it created a circumstance that in certain situations is very difficult to get things done.

“Moving forward, what this does is to put the director almost precisely in the position of a prime minister. That is to say that the director has significant authority and responsibility but so long as, and only so long as, that individual can maintain significant majority support among the executive board and among the players.’’

Had Fehr accepted the same job Kelly accepted, with the underlying trap doors and loopholes, he would have been vulnerable to a similar fate. In Kelly’s case, select players were high-fiving each other in the hallway of a Chicago hotel moments after they wielded their long knives.

When your faithful puck chronicler asked Fehr if he would have taken the job with the previous document in place, he said, “The answer is I don’t know for sure, but it would have been a vastly more difficult choice without the new constitution.’’

We trust no one needs a magnifying glass to read between the lines. Prime Minister Fehr wasn’t going to take the gig without being assured of the comforts, luxuries, and contractual needs that would prevent him from being the victim of a Shakespearean tragedy.

As for what plays out in the months leading to the Sept. 15, 2012, expiration of the CBA, again Fehr revealed next to nothing. He offered little opinion about the standing CBA or what he envisioned as the key elements of the next one, stating a number of times that he needs time to educate himself on the document and the industry and discuss with players what changes, if any, they deem worth exploring.

As a very soft target, Fehr offered the spring of 2012 as the time he figured the sides would initiate talks. He proudly offered that Major League Baseball hasn’t had “any real suggestion of any labor difficulties . . . for almost 16 years.’’

“Maybe,’’ added the Prime Minister, “we can get to the point in this sport, too, that that is the general impression. We’ll see.’’

Turning again to Lemaire Much the way George Steinbrenner continually brought back Billy Martin to straighten out his Yankees, Devils boss Lou Lamoriello last week pulled a Jacques Lemaire threepeat in hopes of providing his team with some shape and sanity.

Whatever his tool kit was, John MacLean was an abysmal failure behind the bench (9-22-2 when the end came Thursday morning). It became evident Oct. 23, when he sat $100 million forward Ilya Kovalchuk after only seven games, that he had limited coaching means. Bold move — and perhaps deserved — but that kind of clout works for few coaches not named Scotty Bowman. Let us not forget how well it worked when Steve Kasper employed neither Cam Neely nor Kevin Stevens that fateful January night in Toronto in 1996.

Lemaire, 65, won the Stanley Cup as Devils coach in 1995 when he fashioned the Trappist Wonk approach to dumbing down the game in the neutral zone. He left after five years at Exit 16W, coached eight more seasons in St. Paul (the Wild), then returned to New Jersey last season to take the place of the homesick Brent Sutter (now behind the Calgary bench, and assuredly sick of home).

Lemaire packed up again in April of this year (“It’s the end of the line. I’ll be 65. It’s just time.’’) Now he’s back to throw late-in-life middle relief.

Where now for these Rockbottoms in Newark? Lemaire is not a long-term fix. But his keen eye and knowledge will provide everything Lamoriello needs to know — if he doesn’t already — about the collection of misfiring misfits that last week stood 30th in the Original 30.

Meanwhile, star winger Zach Parise likely will not return until after the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

It feels like a decade ago, but it was only Feb. 4 of this year when Lamoriello acquired Kovalchuk, considered then one of the game’s elite scorers. Kovalchuk has proven to be nothing but a headache, and a costly one, ever since.

In his debut under Lemaire Thursday, Kovalchuk went 0-0—0 and was a minus-3. His numbers for the season: 8-10—18 and an ungodly minus-25 in 33 games.

What if the unspeakable were to occur and Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek admits his blunder and buys out Kovalchuk? The good news would be that Vanderbeek would save one-third ($31.1 million) of the $93.3 million Kovalchuk has remaining on the deal. The bad news would be the payout: $2.22 million each of the next 28 years. On a capped payroll expected to eclipse $60 million next season, that would amount to roughly a 3.7 percent luxury tax. Some luxury.

A little Capital improvement The Capitals finally began to shake out of the doldrums with back-to-back wins last week over the Senators and Devils (what proved to be MacLean’s farewell 5-1 loss). The win over the Devils had old hand Jason Chimera and Mike Knuble scoring, but the other three strikes came from Jay Beagle, Andrew Gordon, and John Carlson, who had a combined 80 games of NHL experience. Top D.C. guns Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, and Mike Green have a total of five goals for the month of December. At this rate, HBO might stick around for the season and turn its behind-the-scenes entertainmentary into a year-round horror series.

Falling Leaf A Toronto Sun headline Thursday: “Kessel: Out of touch.’’ The Rob Longley-penned piece detailed many reasons why the scoring touch of ex-Bruin Phil Kessel has dried up (five goals in his last 25 games) and included a chart of the darting winger’s protracted scoring droughts throughout his career. To his credit, Kessel addressed the current abyss, saying, “I’ve got to figure it out.’’ Among the things Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson has been preaching to Kessel is to look for more garbage goals by sticking around longer in the slot, taking position closer to the net. Kessel is in his fifth NHL season and has never been that kind of, shall we say, stout opportunist. For him to start lighting it up again, and returning fair value on his $5.4 million a year salary, the Leafs will need an equal scoring threat on another line, or a legit power forward to ride on his line and clear the lane like an Ice Road Trucker.

Making a list Just a handful of things you might see long before Claude Julien gets shooed from the Bruins bench: 1. The demotion or trade of Danny Paille; 2. The recall of Jordan Caron; 3. The trade of Blake Wheeler and/or Mark Stuart; 4. The reintroduction of Tyler Seguin at center, perhaps with wingers who can come close to matching his speed (a reason not to trade Wheeler, by the way); 5. A loosening of the emotional choke that restricts, if not negates, Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton, and even Zdeno Chara from intimidating opponents. This speaks more, really, to Julien’s reserved and controlled approach, but he is being made aware that too much smart play is not always a good thing. This is a team that needs a big dose of dumb-and-ugly. Not every night, but just here and there as a sort of a touchstone.

An older favorite Ray Bourque, the Bruins top pick, No. 8 overall, in the 1979 draft, will be 50-year-old Ray Bourque as of Tuesday. To add to that dimension of time gone by, June 9 will mark the 10-year anniversary of Avalanche captain Joe Sakic handing over the Stanley Cup to an elated Bourque at the Pepsi Center in Denver, for the crowning conclusion of Bourque’s 1,826-game career.

Loose pucks Fehr is scheduled to be in the Hub Jan. 25 to meet with area player agents, part of a regionalized approach to disseminating the union brother-speak that also will take the new executive director to agent group hugs in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles . . . Improved financials on the NHL’s Hockey Related Revenue side have reduced player escrow payments from 17 percent to 13.5 percent in the second quarter. These are the same numbers, for the most part, that have league bosses suggesting that upward of $90 million more will be available for player payroll in 2010-11 . . . Don’t be surprised if Bob Goodenow, barely heard from after being turfed as union head in the days following the settlement of the CBA in the summer of 2005, resurfaces in the Players Association office as key aide de camp. Fehr twice referenced Goodenow during Saturday’s conference call and noted the gains players made during Goodenow’s rule . . . Stick salute to the SCORE Boston hockey program for inner-city kids, a half-dozen of whom were at the Garden Thursday night to meet Thrashers Evander Kane, Anthony Stewart, Dustin Byfuglien, and Johnny Oduya. Bay State favorite son John Torchetti, Atlanta’s associate coach, was instrumental in helping the SCORE players meet the four Thrashers, all of whom are of color . . . Dusted off the leather Tacks, purchased circa 1973, for a parish Christmas skate last Sunday. Great to be out there, even with the rusted blades, dull edges, and trailing odor of mildew (yes, from the leather, OK?). The new skates are tremendous, almost comically lightweight by comparison, but your faithful puck chronicler has yet to discover a way to snug up the laces for a tight fit like the ol’ Tacks. Here’s hoping you get to go for a skate over the holidays, one that leaves you with the requisite sore legs and hot chocolate mustache.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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