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The Fehr Brothers lead NHL players in feisty labor battle

PHILADELPHIA (MCT) — The NHL has had numerous brother acts through the years.

Some brothers were bruisers (Bob and Barclay Plager), and some were Hall of Famers at vastly different positions (Phil and Tony Esposito). More recently, Henrik and Daniel Sedin have blossomed into perennial all-stars with the Vancouver Canucks.

There are many other sibling combinations, of course, but the brothers who are now shaking the league to its core may not even know how to skate.

Meet the Fehrs, Donald and Steve, the NHL Players Association’s heavyweights in their feisty labor battle with the league’s owners.

As the union’s special counsel, Steve Fehr, 60, is like a late-inning setup man. He does a lot of the preliminary work before handing the ball to executive director Donald, 64, the team’s closer.

Some might say that, based on the state of the NHL these days, Steve has been as effective as Josh Lindblom in his setup role, and his big brother has not been able to close the deal. The NHL lockout has reached 25 days.

Those supporting the players say the Fehrs have not been ineffective, that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his sidekick, Bill Daly, deserve most of the blame for the labor stalemate.

The players remain united. They speak reverently when describing the work Donald Fehr has done since he was named to head the NHLPA nearly two years ago.

“He’s very up-front and we are totally behind him,” Flyers center Danny Briere said before leaving to play in Germany.

To a lot of sports fans, Fehr is viewed as a villain. As the union leader for baseball’s players, he played a major part in the cancellation of the latter part of the 1994 season, including the World Series.

Now, as boss of the NHL Players Association, Fehr is in the middle of a lockout that has caused the cancellation of the first two weeks. The entire season is in peril.

Hired at the end of 2010 after the NHLPA went 15 months without a leader, Fehr is the players’ fourth union chief since 2005. After he was hired, Bettman issued a statement: “We are pleased that the leadership position at the players’ association has been filled, and we look forward to working with Don in his new role.”

The league, it is safe to assume, is not pleased anymore. The NHL estimated that it already lost $100 million because of the cancellation of exhibition games. That number is growing every day.

Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, and Steve Fehr have been warring with words throughout the labor dispute, which has left both sides without a collective-bargaining agreement since Sept. 15.

Daly is perturbed that the NHLPA has not made a counter offer to a proposal made nearly a month ago.

“Bargaining is not ping-pong,” Steve Fehr countered late last month.

Daly said he did not expect economic issues to be discussed at Wednesday’s labor meeting with union executives in New York. He told the Los Angeles Times: “We would be happy to listen to the PA on economic or system issues, but they don’t appear to be inclined to bring anything new to the table. As long as that’s the case, I’m not sure we have more to add. They got the last two substantive proposals from us.”

Responded Steve Fehr: “For more than a month, the owners have not wanted to meet to discuss the core economic issues unless it is on their terms — that is, unless the players have yet another offer that includes significant concessions for them.”

And so it goes. The Fehr brothers playing hardball on one side, Daly and Bettman doing the same on the other.

The crux of the labor dispute is dividing revenue, which was $3.3 billion last season. The players received 57 percent in the last agreement. Donald Fehr wants them to receive 53 to 54 percent in the new CBA, while the owners have proposed a sliding scale that starts at 49 percent and drops to 47 percent.

Each percentage-point change is worth $33 million based on last season’s revenue.

Neither side is budging. And, perhaps because of their faith in the Fehr brothers, the players have hinted that they will sit out the entire season before accepting the owners’ terms.

Baseball roots

Displaying a tenacity that belies his Midwestern roots, Donald Fehr cut his teeth under the iconic Marvin Miller, baseball’s first union leader, while serving as his lead attorney in the 1970s. He later replaced Miller and had a sometimes-tumultuous 26-year reign as MLB’s union leader until he stepped down in 2009. His tenure included a strike that canceled the playoffs and World Series, a steroid smear on the game, record players’ salaries, a winning collusion case against the owners, and, eventually, 14 years of labor peace.

NHL players know his background — and probably wish he had represented their union in the 2004-05 labor war, one in which the owners imposed a salary cap and a 24 percent rollback in players’ salaries after the entire season was canceled.

“I think the union is much better this time around,” veteran Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “We’re more informed, we’re more open. We know what’s going on.”

Fehr, an Eagle Scout and high school debate champion in his younger years, successfully fended off the salary-cap aspirations of baseball owners. The average player salary in MLB was $289,000 when he became baseball’s union leader. When he retired from his baseball post, the average salary had climbed to $3.24 million, according to ESPN.

Steve Fehr was one of the baseball union’s lead labor negotiators during some of his brother’s tenure with MLB and is still general counsel for the players’ union. Last December, he was hired by the NHLPA on the same day as his brother.

A former agent for some of baseball’s top players, Steve Fehr was the lead counsel in some of the players association’s collusion cases against MLB, getting the league to agree on a $280 million settlement in 1990.

In a Sporting News interview last month, Donald Fehr said that his brother “has many fewer hard edges than I do” and that it was “an extraordinary thing” to have him by his side for more than 20 years in their legal battles against MLB and now against the NHL. “When you are involved in bargaining, it really helps to have somebody who, first of all, is knowledgeable, is observant, knows how the game is played ... (and) knows you inside out and backwards, and perhaps, most importantly, is capable of telling you, probably more often than you want to hear, that you are full of (it).”

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