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In Fehr, NHL players have their man

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

On the road one night in October, the Chicago Blackhawks gathered for dinner at a downtown St. Louis steakhouse. The dominant sounds were the scraping of plates and the voice of Don Fehr, the presumptive executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.

As the players ate, Fehr set the table for the future. ’Hawks goaltender Marty Turco(notes) joked Saturday about drooling – not over the meal, but over what Fehr, the former executive director of the MLB Players Association, would bring to the organization.

“Without going into too much detail, Don’s perspective on solidarity as a union always comes from the players and what we’re willing to do, what we’re willing to sacrifice as a group and as individuals, and how committed we are,” Turco said. “It’s us. It’s not him. He’s just an extension of us, and he’s going to work his butt off to figure everything out as quickly as he can and to the best of his knowledge. …

“It was awesome. I walked away a totally different person, the way I thought about the PA, and it was all because of what he had said and how he had explained it.”

This is why it took so long. The union officially announced Saturday that “the full membership of the NHLPA has voted overwhelmingly” to appoint Fehr as executive director. The news came more than three months after the union announced that the executive board had accepted the search committee’s recommendation of Fehr’s hiring.

Fehr wanted to make sure he had a mandate from the membership. It was an important first step in gluing together a fractured organization, and it was a smart move to ensure his effectiveness as a leader. He expects to open labor negotiations with the league in the spring of 2012, with the collective bargaining agreement expiring Sept. 15 of that year.

The NHLPA has been a mess since the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. The union has gone through four executive directors (including an interim) and two periods in which the position was vacant.

Fehr needed to put an end to the infighting and unify the union behind him. He also had to educate the players – many of whom weren’t in the league during the last round of collective bargaining – about the basics of belonging to a union. He traveled and held many meetings like the one he held with the ’Hawks.

I’m not sure how much of a difference it made in the final vote. What options did the players have? Were they going to reject someone with Fehr’s credentials – or even be lukewarm – after the search committee and executive board had endorsed him? But the symbolism was important, and the impression Fehr made was powerful.

Calgary Flames forward Brendan Morrison(notes) called Fehr “very impressive.” Detroit Red Wings forward Dan Cleary said Fehr “knows what he’s doing.” All kinds of players echo those comments.

“This process took a while,” Fehr said Saturday in a conference call, “and it took a while because from the players’ standpoint, they wanted to be sure, and from my standpoint, I wanted them to be sure that they had made a decision they were comfortable with, that all the players had an opportunity to have their say and that this judgment represented a consensus view of the entire membership. It has.”

But it goes deeper than that. As excited as the players seem to be, many others – from fans to media members to agents to league executives – are taking a wait-and-see attitude or are downright fearful of Fehr.

One, Fehr once presided over the cancellation of a World Series. He seems primed to butt heads with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who once presided over the cancellation of an entire season. In public, Fehr has pointed out that baseball has enjoyed labor peace for almost 16 years now and called work stoppages last resorts. In private, he has reassured the players that he is not necessarily picking for a fight.

“The key thing is, he’s building a relationship with the league,” Cleary said. “It’s not all about, ‘We have to get everything. They have to get everything.’ ”

Two, Fehr isn’t a hockey guy. He grew up in Kansas City, not Quebec City, and joked that “nobody would accuse me of being willing to go on skates without a doctor close by.” But he said he has followed the sport and expects to follow it more closely now, and he argued that, in the end, it isn’t about his love of the game.

“You don’t take the job for that reason, not if you know what you’re doing,” Fehr said. “You take the job because what you want to do is, you want to represent the players. You want to help them achieve what they would like to achieve. You’d like to build an organization – or this case perhaps rebuild an organization – so that it’s an effective representative of the players. That’s really the key. That’s really why I do this.”

Lastly, this whole process seems a little sketchy. Fehr joined the NHLPA as an unpaid advisor last fall. He was supposed to help with the union’s constitution. Then he started helping come up with the criteria for an executive director. Then he started helping with the search for an executive director. And now, not only has he become executive director himself, he has a constitution that has been altered in a way that suits him.

“What this does is to put the director almost precisely in the position of a prime minister,” Fehr said. “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. …

“Would I have taken the position without that amendment? Um, the answer is, I don’t know for sure, but it would have been a vastly more difficult choice without the new constitution.”

Fehr was well aware of how that would look. Turco, one of four players on the constitution committee, said Fehr gave his input during the process but made sure the players did their own research, gave their own opinions and went through everything thoroughly themselves.

“He was worried about how people might perceive anything that he does with it now that he’s a part of it, because he’s genuine and he cares and he understands the magnitude of things that he’s trying to accomplish,” Turco said. “Having dealt with him personally, it’s just going to inject a shot into this union that we’ve been looking for pretty much … since the existence of the NHLPA.”

Fehr has a lot of work ahead. He has to fill out his staff and committees. He has to meet with key agents at the end of January. He said he has to acquire “detailed working knowledge” of the current labor agreement, revenue sharing system and NHL economics. Only then can he make recommendations to the players, and only then can the union formulate its positions and game plan for labor negotiations.

Some remain skeptical. Why is he doing this – especially when he’s 62 and doesn’t plan to stay in the position long-term? Does he truly have the best interest of the players at heart, or does he simply see an opportunity for power or perhaps redemption for the steroid scandal that tainted his reign at the MLBPA?

But many others have been won over, and for Fehr, they’re the most important people. They’re players.

“We have our man,” Turco said. “He’s not just doing it for show. It’s who the guy is. He’s got a tremendous amount of integrity. Don Fehr’s one guy who could sit down at my table at my Last Supper, you know?”