TORONTO – Don Fehr is finally the executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
The union announced the move Saturday, saying the players voted “overwhelmingly to appoint Don Fehr as the new NHLPA executive director, following the executive board’s endorsement.”
Fehr’s appointment was hardly a surprise considering he had already gained the board’s support.
But it came after a search committee recommended in September Fehr’s appointment to the executive board, which then directed the matter be put to a full vote of the union membership.
“This process took a while and it took a while because from the players’ standpoint they wanted to be sure,” Fehr said during a conference call. “From my standpoint I wanted them to be sure they had made a decision they were comfortable with, that all the players had an opportunity to have their say and that this judgement represented a consensus view of the entire membership.
“It has and that’s both quite an honour to me and is also quite humbling.”
Fehr, 62, is the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He held that post from 1983 until 2009. Fehr had been serving as an unpaid NHLPA consultant.
Fehr, who said he grew up watching some hockey and considers himself a fan, plans to hit the ground running. His immediate plans are to meet with players while becoming more acclimated with the intricate details of hockey’s collective bargaining agreement, revenue sharing and the economics of the game.
“Those are the three main pieces you have to have in order to do the kind of analysis that it will take to prepare for collective bargaining,” he said. “What goes right along with this is educating the membership at the same time as I educate myself as to what those issues are, what’s important about them, how various things affect the players and then additionally what changes in the agreement—either that we might propose or that the commissioner’s office might propose—could affect them.
“Then to work with the players to identify individuals who are willing to and whom the rest of the players would like to serve on their negotiating committees moving forward. That’s an awful lot of work.”
But another task Fehr says he faces is also finding his replacement. Given his age, Fehr added he can’t boldly predict he’ll still be on the job 10-15 years down the road.
“Anybody my age you know the time horizon is a finite one,” he said. “It certainly will be my desire, if the players want me to at the time, to make a recommendation on someone.
“Having said that, that choice will remain with the players. I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open and if I see somebody then obviously that’s something I’ll note with more than passing interest.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league was happy to see the NHLPA’s top job filled.
“We are pleased that the leadership position at the Players’ Association has been filled, and we look forward to working with Don in his new role,” Bettman said in a statement.
Michael Weiner, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said Fehr’s experience in baseball will serve him well in his new post.
“We congratulate Don and the NHLPA, and we wish them well in all future collective bargaining matters,” Weiner said in a release. “Don’s experience with the MLBPA will surely benefit hockey players going forward.
“The MLBPA, as it has done in the past, stands ready to assist the NHLPA whenever called upon.”
Fehr takes over an organization that’s been plagued by turmoil and uncertainty in recent years. The union has had four different leaders since the end of the 2004-’05 NHL lockout.
What’s more, the agreement between the NHLPA and the league is set to expire in September 2012. During his time heading up the baseball union, Fehr developed a reputation of being a fierce negotiator and led the baseball players through the 1994-’95 strike and subsequent cancellation of the World Series at a time when the Montreal Expos had emerged as a definite championship contender.
Fehr said he’s unsure about a bargaining date as to when negotiations with the league would begin, adding if he had to guess it would be “probably sometime a year from this spring, maybe a little sooner than that but that’s only a target date.
“Down the road a few months I expect to have a much better idea of when it would make sense.”
But Fehr said it’s very unfair for hockey fans to automatically assume another lockout is now imminent because of his appointment to the NHLPA.
“A lot of people have knee-jerk reactions to things but a knee-jerk reaction that would say my background . . . suggests I am a hawk such that it necessarily means there will be problems in the negotiations I don’t think reflects a very complete or sophisticated understanding of what we went through,” he said. “You have an obligation to negotiate in good faith with the owners and we will do that and they have an obligation to negotiate in good fair with the players and I trust and hope they will do that.
“We treat a work stoppage, a strike, as a last resort and it’s something you consider only when you believe that all alternatives have failed. If you would ask me if I anticipate a stoppage, I would say no and I certainly hope we won’t have one but I’m not going to predict what happens in negotiations.”
Something new Fehr would have to handle in contract negotiations with the NHL is a league-mandated salary cap, which doesn’t exist in pro baseball.
The NHLPA also announced its membership voted overwhelmingly to accept amendments that were put forward by the constitution committee and endorsed by the executive board. The union said in a statement the amendments add clarity to, and simplify, the new constitution as well as the association’s decision-making process.
Fehr said the adoption of the amendments made it easier for him to decide to take the executive director’s job.
“Would I have taken the position without that amendments? The answer is I don’t know for sure but it would’ve been a vastly more difficult choice,” Fehr said. “Moving forward, what this does is put the director almost precisely in the position of a prime minister and that is to say 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 and board and players.
“What that should cause is me or anyone else who has this position to spend enough time with the players to make sure you’re in sync with them and in the end that’s the most important thing you have to do in order to have a successful organization.”