Share this article

print logo

Fehr takes over as union head; Wins with an overwhelming vote

It's a case where a mixed metaphor makes sense: The NHL Players' Association feels it hit a grand slam with the man set to score goals for their union.

The NHLPA, which has a long history of poor to shaky leadership, has elected one of sports most well-known bosses as its new executive director. Donald Fehr assumed the role Saturday, as the union announced that its membership voted with an overwhelming majority to name the former head of the baseball union as its leader.

"Overwhelming majority just shows the confidence that we have in him," said Buffalo Sabres defenseman Steve Montador, a member of the NHLPA's constitution committee. "We're excited to have him. I think he's the guy with the most experience. Even though he doesn't know hockey, there's nobody else around that has the type of experience for the type of labor union that we are."

Fehr became a respected boss and feared negotiator while serving as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1983 to 2009.

"I am both humbled and honored by the expression of confidence that the players' vote reflects," the 62-year-old said.

The union's search committee recommended hiring Fehr in September, but the group decided since they've had four leaders since the 2004-05 lockout that it was wise to put the choice to a membership-wide vote. Fehr had been serving as an unpaid consultant.

"It's been a long time coming, that's for sure, but it's a not a decision we wanted to jump in as far as who we'd want to have come take over as executive director," Montador said before facing the Tampa Bay Lightning. "What he helped so far with the players, at least my understanding is, is the empowerment that he helps everybody feel with getting everybody informed with the issues.

"That's important for a leader, to be able to connect with everybody and share with everybody what's going on. That will be a bit of a challenge for him given that he's not that familiar with hockey, but at the same time the techniques that he used in baseball can be used in hockey."

Fehr helped salaries skyrocket for his baseball players, but his tenure was also tinged by the 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series. The NHL's collective bargaining agreement expires in September 2012.

"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 faith with the players, and I trust and hope they will do that," Fehr said on a conference call. "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."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman welcomed Fehr from the diamond to the ice.

"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.

Fehr took the job on the same day the union ratified its constitution.

"Our previous constitution, as many people have said, had a lot of checks and balances that didn't really allow anybody to get anything done," Montador said. "We basically simplified it. We're giving all the power to the executive director, so long as he has the vote of confidence of the executive board and the rest of the players."

That additional control made Fehr's decision to accept the job easier.

"Would I have taken the position without the 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 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."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com