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Campbell's Cuts: Fehr at helm would be dream for NHLPA, nightmare for NHL

Could former MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr end up at the helm of the NHLPA? (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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Could former MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr end up at the helm of the NHLPA? (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The NHL’s worst nightmare hasn’t materialized yet. But it’s lurking.

One thing we want to make crystal clear is that former Major League Baseball Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr in no way led anyone, not the 140 player agents he addressed Thursday or the media, to believe that he is interested in or would accept the same job with the NHL Players’ Association.

He did not send out any mixed messages. He has dealt with the stresses of running the MLBPA for a quarter of a century and as he pointed out, “I’m not as young as I used to be and I want to slow down.”

In fact, one scenario being floated is that Fehr could stay with the association as a senior advisor. Whether he takes the job or not, it appears Fehr will be part of the hockey labor landscape for at least the next couple of years. The players want it, the agents want it and there’s a chance that, at the age of 61, Fehr just might be looking for another mountain to conquer.

But the reality is the NHLPA is looking for a savior. And while Fehr was non-committal about his future, he did not dismiss the possibility of him taking the job for which he seems to be both the ideal and preferred candidate.

For the record, he said he has not been approached either formally or informally by the players to take the job and that it would be premature to contemplate what he would do if he were offered the job.

“There are lots of rumors out there,” Fehr said. “I’m not saying nobody in a bar didn’t say a ‘What if?’ question, but nothing formal or nothing like that.”

Fehr addressed the agents to update them on the work he and the members of the constitution committee have done on rewriting the NHLPA’s unwieldy constitution that will make it much easier for the executive director – whether it’s Fehr or somebody else – to actually do his job. When Eric Lindros and his cabal of militants were in charge of things after the firing of Ted Saskin, they essentially swung the pendulum so far in favor of the players it essentially stripped the executive director of his power. And they did it against the advice of many who saw the new setup as unworkable.

The Fehr-led committee is working to get the pendulum back more toward the middle. Suffice it to say both the players and agents, in their short dealings with Fehr, have come away highly impressed.
And why wouldn’t they? The man exudes an air of authority and power and is incredibly sure of himself. After mentoring under Marvin Miller, Fehr ran the most powerful players’ association in sports and managed to keep baseball as the only one of the four major North American sports to not have a salary cap. Could he work in an environment where there is a salary cap that is here to stay? Of course he could, but it will undoubtedly make for an interesting dynamic between the players and the league.

The reality is, the much-ballyhooed “partnership” between the players and the league that came out of the last lockout is essentially dead. The only proof you need of that is how both sides took an issue in head shots that they both wanted resolved and turned what could have been a shining moment for the league into just another turf war. They’re both to blame for the ham-handed way it was handled and if this is how they deal with something upon which they agree, we can only assume they’ll be at odds over almost everything.

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And that’s where the players come in when it comes to Fehr. The cycle of leadership in the NHLPA now requires a hard-ass, which is what they had in Bob Goodenow, as both sides appear to be bracing for another epic confrontation when the CBA expires in just over two years.

Fehr made a number of observations about his time being involved with the NHLPA, but perhaps his most interesting one was the difference between working with professional baseball players and their hockey brethren.

“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,” Fehr said. “And one of the tasks of this organization is to make sure the hockey players’ union functions that way, too. That’s about all I can say.”

Fehr noncommittal on future with NHLPA
When Donald Fehr announced his retirement as head of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association in June of 2009, he had no intention of finding another full-time position. But when members of the troubled NHL Players’ Association turned to him in the wake of the union’s power vacuum he agreed to act in an unpaid temporary advisory role.

Fehr’s main task has been to advise the two committees charged with finding a new executive director to replace Paul Kelly and drafting a new constitution for the NHLPA. Fehr gave an update on the committee’s progress to more than 140 agents at the NHLPA’s annual agents meeting Thursday in Toronto.

Ken Campbell was there.

REPORTER: Ken Campbell | PRODUCER: Ted Cooper

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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