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Volume 21 No. 1
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As Fehr looks to future, the work isn’t done

NHL players across the league have been praising NHL Players’ Association Executive Director Don Fehr for his leadership in the weeks since the NHL lockout ended. But Fehr, who took over as NHLPA chief in December 2010 after serving as executive director of the MLB Players Association for 25 years, has been quiet since announcing with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in the early morning of Jan. 6 that the players and the league had agreed to the framework of a new collective-bargaining agreement.

Last week, Fehr agreed to grant SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Liz Mullen a brief interview on the topic of his future, but he declined to discuss the negotiations, details from the 113-day lockout or the new CBA. Speaking by telephone from his office at NHLPA headquarters in Toronto on the morning of Jan. 16, he laughed when he was asked about his future at the union, chuckling when saying, “Is there some rumor? Are they firing me?”

Don Fehr, who led NHL players in their labor negotiations with the league, says he has no plans to retire any time soon, although “executive directors don’t get guaranteed contracts.”
Photo by: AP IMAGES
You retired from the MLBPA before taking this job. What are your plans going forward? What is your deal at the NHLPA?

Fehr: The short answer is, my deal was as follows: I never had a long-term agreement. I have never had any security of any kind and never asked for any. The deal was I would continue in this role, as the players wanted me to, through the negotiations. And then everybody would take stock afterwards and see where we were. I certainly don’t have any plans to change. I have come to respect the players both individually and as a group, more and more, every day, through this process. I have really enjoyed working for them — which is not to say the negotiations were fun, but hopefully you know what I mean. Now we have to put things in place to implement the agreement and plan for the future, and I will discuss the future with the players this summer. But you shouldn’t infer anything from that. It’s just a discussion that needs to be had. But at the moment I don’t have any plans except to stay here and implement this agreement. And we will see what the future brings.

Your deal doesn’t really have a term, is that right?

Fehr: That’s right. It doesn’t have a term. It never did. It basically says I can be terminated on 60 days notice, I think it is. It’s always been like that. And I told them I could continue so long as I have lopsided majority support of the players, but that is true of any executive director. I can’t imagine anybody who would want to continue if you didn’t have that support. And that is sort of the way it is. Executive directors don’t get guaranteed contracts, you know; it’s only players.

How long do you want to do this?

Fehr: Oh, I haven’t even thought about it … about … the future. You know, I am going to be an old fart this summer. I will be 65. I will figure it out, but I don’t have any plans to retire and stop working any time soon. I am still reasonably healthy. I don’t look like I am becoming decrepit yet, or at least nobody is telling me that I am. The short answer is there is no change in my status here. It’s no different than it was a month ago or a year ago.

What about a succession plan? Do you want to look for a successor? Or is that something the players do? Prior to you coming to the NHLPA, there were a number of executive directors who were fired. What about the future of the PA?

Fehr: Anybody in a position like mine needs to pay attention to the future, to discuss it with, in this case, the executive board and to think about those things — and to make sure that if I retire, or I get fired, or if I get hit by a bus, that the organization goes on. And I told the players a lot of times the only people in this entire industry who are indispensable are the players. That’s it. Of course we will be discussing things like that.

Why don’t you want to talk about the collective-bargaining agreement or the negotiations in this interview?

Fehr: The focus has to be to be on the game. It has to be back on the performances of the players. What I think needs to happen now is that people who are not playing hockey need to be out of the spotlight. And I intend to get out of the spotlight.

What is the job of the union right now, now that there is an agreement?

Fehr: It’s three things. You have to finish writing it. We have a memorandum of understanding, but we have to flesh out the agreement. We will do that over the next few weeks. At this point, I don’t think that will be a major problem. We then have to educate, obviously, the players and the agents, about it. And then we have to begin to implement the new agreement that we’ve made because we have to operate under it. But it is a normal process. There is not anything unusual about it.