Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time for players to cast ballots

Silent majority would choose to accept deal

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NHL players wouldn't have voted down the proposal put forth by the league this week.

At least I don't believe they would have.

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Neither does Don Fehr. Otherwise there would have been a vote. And there should have been one. Maybe there still should be.

I understand Fehr's job is to get the best deal for his players and holding a vote could undermine his bargaining position. But we're at the brink. The season is on the line. If the NHL loses the season, the next offer it makes will very likely put next season in jeopardy as well. I'd say it's time to take the temperature of the players as a whole.

There's lots to lose. If I was a player, I'd want a vote. Not a show of hands but an anonymous vote.

I'm in a union. Sometimes the agendas of leadership and its constituents don't coincide. It happens for many reasons. They can be practical, ideological or sinister. Take your pick.

Both the union and ownership will be happy to spin things their way right now. My job, and yours for that matter, isn't to buy everything or anything they have to say. It's to listen and sift and sort and come to an opinion.

Long ago in this process I took the position that a 50-50 split of hockey related revenues and less player mobility was best for this market and the Winnipeg Jets.

In case you don't recall, this city once lost its NHL franchise and its fans paid a heavy emotional debt for 15 years. Excuse me if I care less about the rights of millionaire NHL players that move in and out of our community and more about the people that shop at my grocer and buy this newspaper and pay taxes that support our infrastructure.

Call me pro-owner. I'll look you in the face and tell you I'm pro-Winnipeg and be very happy to do so. Don Fehr doesn't care about the health of this franchise. He cares about player rights. That's what he was hired to do. But I don't have to sing from his song book.

Fehr has fought a good fight. Brilliant at some points. But he's on the verge of flying too close to the sun. Some of his players, and my guess is a majority of them, realize this.

There comes a point when the loss of real dollars outweighs the victories of principle Fehr is chasing. He's out-bluffed the owners again and again. But sooner or later he's going to get called.

 

Right now he's telling the players there's more to be had. It's easy to see Fehr's argument and he's been consistently right. The owners have continually caved.

But when he's wrong the price will be staggering. Some players will be unable to return from the abyss. So, shouldn't they decide if they want to make that blind leap?

Fehr says he works for the players and they make all the decisions. Again, I don't believe that. There is a tight power base that controls the rest of the group. Not every player in the league has a say. Unions simply don't function that way.

The players bristle at the suggestion they are cattle but in every union there has to be some shepherding. Leadership bullies those that don't fall in line.

Right now the players are projecting a united front. It's what they've been schooled to do. I just don't think it's entirely authentic.

Perhaps I'm wrong. Certainly some of the more vocal players Thursday night on Twitter would suggest so. But I believe there is a silent majority that is afraid to use its voice.

A deal was there to be made this week and it had a little something in it for both sides. It should have closed, but Fehr and his lieutenants, for their own reasons, didn't like it. Their voices were loudest.

The union likes to say every player has a voice. I say it's time to hear them all.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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