Speculation over Don Fehr’s potential involvement in professional sports’ weakest union is making for one of the most compelling storylines of the 2010 National Hockey League season. Rumors continue to gain steam that Fehr, who is currently acting as an unpaid advisor for the National Hockey League Players’ Association, will soon be elected Executive Director of the struggling players’ association.
If Fehr assumes a significant leadership role within the NHLPA, the union will immediately regain some of the creditability it has lost in recent years. The NHLPA will also be in a stronger bargaining position with NHL leadership if Fehr is at the helm.
The former Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association is a seminal figure within labor law circles. He has established himself over a 26-year career with the MLBPA as one of the most powerful figures in both labor law and professional sports. Fehr’s credentials and past successes should command the respect of an NHLPA membership that is in desperate need of a strong leader.
The NHLPA has fallen into a state of constant disarray and infighting ever since it lost a lengthy labor dispute with the NHL in 2005. This dispute resulted in a work stoppage that led to the cancellation of the entire 04-05 NHL season.
Other casualties of the lockout included the resignation of longtime union leader Bob Goodenow. Since the loss of Goodenow, the NHLPA has gone through three executive directors: Ted Saskin, Paul Kelly and Ian Penny, who briefly acted as interim union chief after Kelly was unexpectedly fired in 2009. The events in late 2009 also resulted in the resignation of many union staffers, leaving the NHLPA understaffed and in dire need of expert assistance.
Since Fehr has stepped in and rendered such support, the NHLPA seems to be turning things around. Little has leaked out of its Toronto office. Fehr is currently assisting the players in rewriting its constitution. After the organization completes its revisions, Fehr will then lead the NHLPA in a search to find a new Executive Director. However many expect Fehr to recommend himself as new Executive Director.
While he initially rebuffed requests to accept the Executive Director job, Fehr now appears to be interested enough in the position to not dispel rumors of his pending election.
Fehr may already be exerting his influence over the NHLPA. The union is currently reviewing a proposed rule from league GMs that the NHL adopt in an attempt to address a recent wave of high profile headshot incidents. The union has yet to approve the rule, which irked NHL brass. Some believe that if it was not for Fehr’s presence, the NHLPA would have already rubberstamped the rule’s approval. However, the union now plans to submit a counter proposal back to the league before it is submitted for approval.
Fehr’s potential appointment comes at a pivotal time in labor relations between the NHL and the union. The current collective bargaining agreement between the parties expires in September 2011. Although the players are not satisfied with all provisions within the CBA, they have the option to extend the accord for one more year. Extending the CBA for an additional year may provide the NHLPA’s new leader with valuable time to plan a strategy to lead the union in another round of negotiations with the NHL. The union needs to elect a leader who will shift the balance of power in a labor relationship that has been skewed in favor of the NHL ever since the lockout ended. Time will tell whether that new leader will be Fehr.
Jeff Levine is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is a sports attorney, and the Executive Director of One Sports and Entertainment, International.