Donald Fehr is the players’ choice

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

It’s obvious why the NHL Players’ Association wants Donald Fehr to become its executive director. The union is broken. It needs a leader badly. Fehr, who spent more than a quarter century as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, is a giant of sports labor law. He has the gravity to pull the group together with the collective bargaining agreement expiring in two years.

“There’s no one better – bottom line,” said former NHL defenseman Chris Chelios(notes), who was active in the union before he recently became the Detroit Red Wings’ advisor to hockey operations. “At the end of the day, it’s him that’s going to do the negotiating, not the players. So they’re in great hands with him.”

What’s less obvious, more interesting and potentially more significant is why Fehr wants to work for the NHLPA. In a conference call with reporters Saturday, he said that before he began advising the union last fall, he had “known some hockey players, but not very many and not very well.” And now – “surprisingly to me,” he said – he is on the verge of leading the hockey players’ union.

Why? What happened? And what could that mean?

You can’t say it’s not about the money. With a contract lawyer, it’s always about the money. Fehr reportedly has asked for an annual salary of $3 million. Not a bad chunk of change, no matter who you are.

But it’s got to be about more than the money. It’s got to be about the challenge and the opportunity for Fehr, who is 62, has done enough and has made more than enough to retire with satisfaction and comfort. It’s got to be about the love of the game – not baseball, not hockey, but business.

“When I announced my resignation as executive director of the MLBPA a year ago June, I did not anticipate working with or for another union,” Fehr said. “But it’s also clear that one does not represent professional athletes for as long and as intensively as I did without getting a lot of enjoyment out of it.”

Fehr began advising the NHLPA last fall. He was supposed to help with the union’s constitution. Then he started helping the players come up with criteria for an executive director and the search for one. Eventually, the search ended with him. The union announced Saturday that the executive board has accepted the search committee’s recommendation of his hiring. All that remains is a formality: a vote of all the players over the next few weeks.

“The members of the search committee asked if I would be willing essentially to take the helm of the organization for a while – to right the ship, if I can use that metaphor – rebuild the staff and put the organization on a sure footing going forward to and through the upcoming negotiation,” Fehr said. “We had some discussions about that and – surprisingly to me – those discussions led to where we are today.”

Think about what Fehr left behind in baseball. The sport is the only one without a salary cap, and thanks to skyrocketing revenues, there has been labor peace since 1994. But his legacy has been tarnished by the steroids scandal that erupted after he kept the players’ privacy on drug testing.

Now Fehr has a chance to be a savior for another group of players and end his career with an exclamation point. He’s needed. Everybody knows how bad things have been for the NHLPA. In fact, Fehr opened his conference call by saying just that.

“The NHLPA is an organization which, I think, as everybody knows, has seen its share of turmoil and uncertainty over the past few years,” said Fehr, pointing out the union has gone through four executive directors (including an interim), plus two periods when the position was vacant, since the 2004-05 lockout.

Fehr said he has gotten to know the players and respect them. But he also spoke as if he relished the chance to whip them into shape. He talked about “going back to basics,” teaching the players how collective bargaining works and how it affects them, how they need to be involved and unified.

“The only way you can be successful over any sustained period of time is to make sure the players are educated, they understand the process, they understand the issues, they think, they evaluate, they talk to one another, they participate in internal deliberations and they participate in the bargaining process,” Fehr said. “The most important thing that you can do to get this union ready for bargaining – or to get any union ready for bargaining – is to make sure that process plays itself out.”

The question is whether Fehr’s love of the game (business) will compromise others’ love of the game (hockey). Will it be enough for Fehr to fix the union? Or will he need to win a battle with the NHL?

Fehr said all the right things on Saturday, that it will be “hopefully a successful and quiet negotiation” and a work stoppage would be a “last resort.” He declined to characterize the union’s relationship with the league or take a stand on the salary cap in hockey, even though he fought against a cap in baseball. He stressed that what works or doesn’t work for one sport doesn’t necessarily translate to another. He said the NHLPA’s position on central economic matters had yet to be determined – and would be determined by the players themselves.

But Fehr always has fought to win and has his own philosophy, and the players are going to listen to what he recommends. That’s why they’re hiring him. He was unafraid to cancel a World Series, just as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was unafraid to cancel an entire season. No one forgets that, as everyone in hockey – from the rich teams to the poor teams to the players to the fans – worries about another Armageddon.

“Hockey is a business, but it’s still a sport, and in order for the sport to survive, the business has to be functional,” said Glen Sather, general manager of the big-market New York Rangers. “If you can’t control your spending and you can’t control your revenues, nobody’s going to survive. So we have to work together to make it all work.”

“There doesn’t have to be [another war],” said Jim Rutherford, general manager of the small-market Carolina Hurricanes. “This CBA has worked out very well for the players. They sat out, the league didn’t play and we went through a whole year to get the system that’s in place that’s been pretty damn good for the players. I would expect that we’re not going to be silly enough to do that again.”

Chelios sat near a window, looking down on the players below at an eight-team prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich. He seemed a little uncomfortable on what he called “the other side,” now a member of management. But his new vantage point gave him a new perspective.

“Obviously there’s still a problem with the system,” Chelios said. “Teams are still struggling. They’re losing players because of the cap. … Hopefully there’s a happy medium for everybody, some common ground at the end of the day. That’s what’s best for the game of hockey.”

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