Q&A Donald Fehr: NHL union head talks fighting and the lockout
When the National Hockey League Players’ Association named Donald Fehr executive director in December 2010, he was tasked with repairing and strengthening a union whose history was pockmarked by divisiveness.
He has done so, building virtual consensus amongst the players while negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the NHL.
Metro New York recently talked to Fehr about the relationship between the players’ association and the NHL following the lockout, fighting in hockey and Alex Rodriguez.
Metro: How would you describe the relationship between the PA and the NHL one year after the lockout?
Fehr: I think the answer to that is “professional.” I think it is direct. Hopefully it is maturing. There is a lot of ongoing communication between our offices as we attempt to complete the agreement and operate. … Hopefully that will continue to develop.
During the labor talks one of the aspects you were adamant about was that the lockout was unnecessary. Do you still feel the same way?
Yes. That hasn’t changed. As I think I’ve said any number of times, that’s the collective bargaining strategy of choice in the salary cap sports. I don’t think it was necessary but it certainly was expected.
Were you surprised by the response of NHL fans to the league following the lockout, in terms of attendance and spending money on the product?
Without commenting specifically about spending dollars, I was not surprised by the fan response. The product is really good. The show the guys put on is really compelling. And that’s especially true for hockey fans, who understand really what’s going on out there and have been fans for a long time. And if the game was taken away from them for awhile you’re going to see renewed interest when it comes back. That’s just not, by the way, a hockey speculation. That’s been the case in the other sports, too.
What do you think was the biggest gain for the players in the new CBA?
There were all kinds of things that were in there, all kinds of improvements in working conditions and various kinds and sorts of things. You can talk about what it had been if the union hadn’t been there or the players hadn’t been willing to take the stand that they did. But I will tell you the one that I think on a personal basis was very satisfying and that’s the [pension plan] we have in effect. It covers last year and this year; this is the second year of it. We [think] it’s quite a good thing for players for decades to come, I hope.
You have talked about the future of the sport in positive terms. Where do you see the league headed in the next five to 10 years, and how does that compare to the NFL, NBA and MLB?
That’s a hard one because I really don’t know what’s on the table in basketball and the NFL, and my baseball knowledge — while certainly greater than that of the other two sports — is a number of years out of date. So I can only speak about the NHL. All I can tell you is that as a relative newcomer — as somebody that’s really come to understand and appreciate the game — what goes on out there, to understand and appreciate the players, not only their consummate athletic skill, drive, their dedication, their intelligence and all the rest of that, we ought to be able to figure out a way, not only to grow jointly with the NHL [but] to demonstrate why this game is so extraordinary in a fashion that will allow us to attract more and more fans as time goes on. And I’m pretty optimistic about that.
One aspect you have talked about in terms of growth is an expansion of international tournaments such as the World Cup or Canada Cup. Do you see a timetable for the implementation of those tournaments?
In a general sense, but if and when we get to the point where we’re ready to make announcements we’ll make it jointly with the league. But I hope it’s not going to be very long before we’re able to move forward in those areas.
One area in which the players held firm during the CBA talks was Olympic participation. Do you see Sochi as the last time NHL players will participate in the Olympics, or will it be a case-by-case basis?
I think that it was, as I understand it, a case-by-case basis in every Olympics. And what I assume and believe will happen after this one is that people will stop, reflect and try to figure out what happened poorly, if anything did, what it would mean and then sit down with the NHL and try to figure out where we go from here. But that’s not a judgment you make now, we’re way too early for that.
A number of players who are going to Sochi have expressed safety concerns. Are you confident in the safety protocols in place for these games?
We have been assured that everything that can be done is being done, and I certainly hope that’s the case. Obviously we will continue to monitor everything that happens up [to] and including the time everybody comes home.
The league just signed its deal with Rogers, and with television sports broadcast rights growing exponentially, how much larger can those deals become and how does digital, streaming and on-demand services play into that?
I can’t answer the second question — I’m not in a position to do that — but with respect to the first question I am very surprised they are as long as they are now. As you probably know, the union is not involved in those negotiations, does not participate in them, does not have a voice or anything like that, and I’m assuming the people who negotiated for the NHL think it’s the appropriate thing to do to have them be that long. Having said that, again, it doesn’t mean that when people negotiate again or are negotiating on a local basis that these precedents will necessarily follow. I can’t certainly predict whether in the future the length of agreements is going to go up or down. All kinds of things can happen long before the NBC and Rogers agreements [expire].
One point the PA discussed is expanding the number of outdoor games. This year, the NHL will play six outdoor games. What is this doing for the game and for the league, and is there a concern the league could schedule so many outdoor games that it becomes a case of diminishing returns?
I think the question that is going to have to be examined after this year is whether the games created the kind of buzz — not including the Winter Classic — but the kind of buzz in the local markets which really make them good events because they are primarily local events. If indeed [the Stadium Series games interest] a lot of people to go to hockey games who otherwise wouldn’t go and get exposed to the sport, if it becomes an event that people talk about and want to go to, then I think there will be interest in seeing if we should continue it. Having said that, we’ll obviously have to talk to the players and see if they thought whether it was good or bad, whether they would like to continue it again. If we do continue it, you need to look at where you would want to do that. So I think this is going to be an interesting experiment and hopefully it’s going to work.
In the aftermath of the Shawn Thornton-Brooks Orpik incident, a criticism of the NHLPA has been a belief there is not representation of an injured player during player safety and supplemental discipline hearings. What role does the PA have in representing both a player who injures another and the injured player in those hearings?
All I can say about that is when a player decides to challenge discipline or to [attend] an in-person hearing [when it] is called for, he has a right to be represented by his union and he has a right to have whatever the arguments can be made on his behalf made in the appropriate way. The union has an obligation to do that. It’s also in the interest of all players to make sure where discipline in imposed, that it is imposed for good reasons and pursuant to a fair process. That works on everybody’s behalf quite apart from the results of an individual case. In the end, the facts ordinarily determine what the result is.
In the vein of the Thornton-Orpik incident, there has been increased debate about the role of fighting in hockey. Do you think fighting still has a place in the game?
My job is to represent what the players feel is appropriate. I think there’s no doubt at all, as time goes on, there will be continued discussion, there will be continued debate and after seeing how that develops further over time. In the end, it’s something that the players have to consider.
Certainly even though you haven’t been the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association for years, you still have ties with them. What you disappointed about Alex Rodriguez naming Michael Weiner in his filing against Major League Baseball?
I have not read the complaint in any detail yet, so I can’t comment on that. Obviously I’m always disappointed where you have proceedings and you end up with litigation following those proceedings. One of the reasons you have arbitration cases is that you hope it’s going to resolve all the outstanding issues and in this case it obviously has not, or at least has not as of yet. But I’m not going to comment on the merits of the case or why the particular parties are involved or anything like that for two reasons: One that I mentioned and the second one basically is it’s not my job anymore. It’s not that I’m ducking it, it’s appropriate to let the people there respond to those inquiries. That’s where the inquiries should be directed.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.