RALEIGH, N.C. – Don Fehr hasn’t stopped since taking over as executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.
In fact, the heavy travel started before he officially accepted the position on Dec. 18. Fehr believes in the power of face-to-face communication so he’s been traversing the continent to meet as many hockey people as possible.
“There’s a lot of learning to be done,” he said in an interview during the NHL’s all-star weekend. “First of all, you need to get to know people—people in the office, people who represent the players and most importantly the players.
“You’ve got to get a sense of them, you’ve got to try and ascertain whether your approach is likely to communicate the most effectively with them.”
With a little more than 700 union members, there is no shortage of relationships to build. Fehr has found that he enjoys spending time with hockey players and lists that as one of his primary motivations for accepting the leadership role after originally joining the union as an unpaid consultant.
There aren’t many people who have his credentials. Fehr, 62, spent 32 years with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association—26 of them as executive director—but notes that the economics are unique in each professional sport.
“I’m trying to wrap my arms around it, trying to plan how all the work’s going to get done over the next year (or) year and a half,” said Fehr. “Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a lot of travelling—first to see the players and now agents.”
There is a “multitude” of things to discuss when he sits down with an athlete.
From each of them, he tries to get a sense of what issues are most important and how they feel about a range of topics. In return, he does his best to educate and encourage players to take interest in union matters—a task that has been difficult in the past.
“You’ve got to make sure that they understand what the role of the union is and more importantly than that, what the role of players within the union is and that the role of players is central,” said Fehr. “No matter how fancy a title you have, no matter what your level of experience is, the people in the organization that matter are the athletes.
“Staff is staff, including me.”
His most important task will be negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the league once the current agreement expires in September 2012.
Neither side seems anxious to sit down and have preliminary discussions any time soon. The NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball all have CBA agreements that will expire before the NHL’s does and commissioner Gary Bettman indicated over the weekend he’s waiting to see what happens elsewhere.
“Three major sports besides us go first—if you feel compelled to write about collective bargaining, go do it on another sport please,” said Bettman.
Fehr has a reputation of being a fierce negotiator but says that he expects the process to be civil. He’s known Bettman for a number of years and would like to have their eventual discussions kept private, noting with a laugh that it could never happen.
“In a perfect world, you would have your negotiations and the first time any of you know about it when you have a press conference to announce it’s all done,” said Fehr.
Among the other things Fehr touched on during a 30-minute discussion with The Canadian Press:
—On the head shot issue: “With the help of current players, with the help of former players, with the help of some other people that have been around and watched this closely, I’m hopeful that utilizing the vehicles that we now have—whether it’s the concussion working group, whether it’s the competition committee, whether it’s new kinds of bilateral discussions which go on—we can find a way with the league to make decisions which are done on a consensus basis. Because whatever you do will have a much greater chance of success if you can find something that everybody is prepared to live with.”
—On the first all-star draft: “I thought it was interesting, I thought it was fun. I am going to be very interested to see what the public reaction is after the weekend is over and after people think on it and chew at it.”
—On areas where the NHL has potential for growth: “The short answer is I don’t know yet. I’m not about to be criticizing people or lauding them until I really know.”
The NHLPA has been plagued by turmoil and uncertainty in recent years, having seen three other leaders come and go since the lockout.
But the rebuilding has begun under Fehr with the adoption of a new constitution and last week’s announcement of four new hires (including former Jim Balsillie frontman Richard Rodier). It will continue as the new union leader continues putting his stamp on the organization.
“There’s a bunch of work left to do,” said Fehr. “Any time any new person comes in to the CEO’s position in an operation, there’s a tendency to do two things—you don’t want to disturb the things that are working well, but you also like things to work sort of in a manner that you’re familiar with, that you’ve had success with.
“So you want to try and merge the two of those things and create an effective and cohesive organization. I think things are moving in that direction.”