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Fehr has NHL owners exactly where he wants them

IT HAS been 5 days since the NHL and its players association figureheads furiously walked out on each other in Manhattan.

Donald Fehr has the NHL's negotiating committee completely flummoxed. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Donald Fehr has the NHL's negotiating committee completely flummoxed. (Mary Altaffer/AP)Read more

IT HAS been 5 days since the NHL and its players association figureheads furiously walked out on each other in Manhattan.

The two sides are not back at the negotiating table just yet, though that is expected to come as soon as Wednesday.

For each side, these 5 days have represented a cooling-off period. A chance to take a step back, waddle over to the edge, peer down at the huge cliff of utter irrelevance that is facing the game, and regroup.

For me, these 5 days have served as a chance to play hockey psychologist, a role that a sports writer would rather not play in mid-December. I'd rather be chronicling Tuesday's night's would-be matchup with the Devils - or handing out midseason report cards on players.

Nonetheless, these few days were an opportunity to shake my head at the maddening brilliance of NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, the only man to be directly involved in work stoppages in two different sports.

Fehr, 64, has the NHL's negotiating committee completely flummoxed. He's kept them guessing through every peak and valley in these negotiations, which didn't begin until July.

His tactics have been fascinating.

Take last week, for instance. After 3 days of intense negotiating, with people in the caucus rooms of both sides believing that a deal was on the table, Fehr refused to negotiate on the NHL's three remaining issues. The two sides battled on core economic principles for months, finally agreeing on a near 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues.

So, Fehr stood at a podium at the Westin Times Square, flanked by 17 players, and addressed the media live on national television in Canada. He said the two sides were so close they are "nearly standing on top of one another," that he hoped training camps would be open soon.

He puppeted everyone in the room with his statements. His players present, those watching at home, the media, and most importantly, the fans.

I don't really mind that Fehr asked his players to stand behind him to deliver a message that he knew was mostly untrue, having sent NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly back to league headquarters with a piece of paper that essentially said: "We won't budge." He made those players address the media, to the point where even power player Sidney Crosby could not say he was "confident," but that he only had hope.

That's all fine. Most of the players are Fehr's pawns in this chess match.

I have a problem with Fehr boldly lying to arena workers, who desperately rely on income from games, and fans who support this gate-dependent league with ticket and merchandise sales.

Fehr's false statements rattled the NHL. Those closest to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will tell you that they haven't seen him as fired up as he was in his 40-minute response in a long, long time. If frustration was his goal, it worked.

Fehr was hired to minimize his players' overall loss in these negotiations. He already has done that - the NHL players are not getting totally killed with this deal.

With each maddening move along the way, Fehr has gotten his players a little bit more from owners. Take the "make-whole" issue to make sure players are paid for their current signed deals. It wasn't even a consideration for the owners in the beginning. Suddenly, the NHL went from zero dollars on the table to $211 million. Fehr countered by asking for $393 million on Nov. 21. Last week, they split the difference at $300 million.

His moves are tough to stomach, but they are working. Fehr smelled blood in the water once four new owners joined the negotiations. Penguins owner Ron Burkle has never once made a public statement since buying the team. Not when his Penguins won the Stanley Cup, secured a new arena in downtown Pittsburgh, or throughout Crosby's concussion ordeal.

Do you really think Burkle would fly cross-country from California to New York if he wasn't interested in making a deal?

Instead, we've heard Fehr say time and time again that the players have made the "lion's share" of the movement at the table. When you put aside the given - right or wrong, mind you - that players would be forced to pare down their revenue share from 57 percent, what exactly have the players compromised on?

Everything Fehr does is with reason; everything is calculated from the suit he wears to the words he uses. He knew what he was doing walking away last week. Fehr is only walking a tightrope when he risks angering a vindictive group of owners past the point of no return.

Thankfully, Fehr is not there yet. But he is close. A deal remains on the table. And, with the remaining issues - like contract term limits and the length of the CBA - affecting such a small minority of his membership, there is no way we'll be missing an entire season this time around.