TORONTO – Donald Fehr didn’t come out and say he was interested in taking the vacant executive director’s position with the NHL Players’ Association, but it’s clear a growing number of people within the game would like to see it happen.
The long-time head of the baseball players’ union spoke for a couple hours at the NHL’s annual agents meeting Thursday and won over a number of guys in the room.
“You don’t run an association like the Major League Baseball Players’ Association as long as he has without being substantive, powerful, politically correct, reasoned and very intelligent,” said Pat Morris of Newport Sports. “He displayed all elements today.”
Fehr has been working as an unpaid consultant for the NHLPA, assisting the union while it rewrites its constitution and tries to rebuild in the wake of a massive leadership purge. He’s also assisting with the leadership search and has arguably emerged as the strongest candidate.
The 61-year-old didn’t confirm or deny his potential interest in the job, saying only that he hasn’t been offered the position.
“When I (left the MLBPA), I had no intention of looking for another full-time position … if there’s a change in my view I don’t think that’ll be a secret to anybody,” said Fehr. “Having said that, I’ve had an opportunity to meet and talk to and work with a number of (NHL) players. … I must say that I find them to be quite remarkable individuals.
“They’re bright, they care, they want to try and do the right thing. I really enjoy it.”
Fehr garnered a reputation as an uncompromising negotiator during his 26 years in charge of the baseball union. He oversaw five labour contracts for the players and was in charge during a seven-plus month strike in 1994-95 that forced the cancellation of the World Series.
A number of NHLers have recently thrown their support behind Fehr and a couple high-profile agents spoke highly of him Thursday, with one saying off the record the union would be “blessed” to have him.
His track record is appealing.
“He’s got 25 years of experience in protecting the players in baseball,” said J.P. Barry of CAA Sports. “There’s a lot of analogies between baseball and hockey.”
The biggest question is whether Fehr is up to accepting a demanding job just months after choosing to “slow down.” In his first ever scrum with the hockey media, he sounded like a guy who could be talked into considering it.
The NHLPA went through an extremely turbulent time in the wake of Paul Kelly’s firing in August. Several top executives followed him out the door and the union has been left to rebuild itself.
“There’s a bunch of work to do,” said Fehr. “Having said that, this is not like starting from scratch. This is not an organization that does not have very significant strengths. It is an organization that has, I believe, a membership that is ready and willing and interested in making things right so that it’s an effective voice for the players.”
Time is certainly of the essence. The league’s current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in 2011, although the players are likely to exercise a one-year extension that will see it end in September 2012.
Fehr only has a cursory understanding of the current CBA.
“I do have a knowledge of how, in a very general sense, of how some of the key provisions work,” he said. “If you ask me, ‘Do you I have a detailed knowledge yet?’ The answer is no. I have never had to do that. And in the process of doing what I’m doing with the constitution and search committees, it’s important in a general sense to get an idea of what the issues are that the players are concerned about.
“That’s not the same thing as analysing agreements and making bargaining opinions.”
The baseball union has long been considered the strongest in North American professional sports because it remains the only one without a salary cap. He hopes to apply some of those principles to the NHLPA.
“All I can tell you is that in my experience, one of the reasons the baseball players’ association has been effective is that it’s a unified whole,” said Fehr. “And one of the tasks of this organization is to make sure the hockey union functions that way too.”