On December 18, 2010, the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) announced that "the full membership of the NHLPA has voted overwhelmingly to appoint Don Fehr as the new NHLPA Executive Director".
Given the pervasive and seemingly endless struggles of the NHLPA, this was a wise choice. To say that the NHLPA has historically had some issues would be an understatement. A gross understatement and one that would put every euphemism to shame.
Eagleson, Goodenow, Saskin & Kelly
The first NHLPA head was Alan Eagleson. After 25 years as head of the Union, Eagleson stepped down from the position in 1991. Eagleson went on to face criminal charges relating to his conduct during the time he worked at the NHLPA, and ultimately, on January 6, 1998, pled guilty in a Boston court to three counts of fraud, agreeing also to pay a fine of $1,000,000. The following day in Toronto, Eagleson pled guilty to another three counts of fraud and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
By way of example, Eagleson was accused of taking large payments from insurance claims before the players filing them received their share, telling the players that he earned the "fee" while fighting against the insurance companies to get the claims paid. In fact, many players later learned that the insurance companies had already agreed to pay the claims and there had been no "fight".
The NHLPA also paid for some of his clothes, theatre tickets and an apartment in London, England.
After Eagleson, Bob Goodenow took over before he was fired by the players after 13 relatively strong years of leadership. Next up was Ted Saskin, whose appointment was so controversial that it led to the highly respected Steve Larmer resigning from the Union. Saskin was later fired for alleged misconduct, including reading player emails.
Paul Kelly was next to take over the Union. The selection was lauded as a good one since Kelly was highly respected and smart (I’ve interviewed him and completely agree). That being said, Kelly was fired in the middle of the night. He waited in a hallway while 30 players decided his fate. When he took over, Kelly ordered forensic audit of the Union's activities over the previous three years, which allegedly revealed some had been spending millions of the Union's money.
Clearly, since its inception, the NHLPA has struggled mightily. Through the years, the NHLPA has been fraught with corruption, scandal, controversy and mismanagement.
That is until now.
Donald Fehr Is Appointed
So that brings us to Donald Fehr. When he was asked to take over the NHLPA, and as reported here on Offside first, he issued a memo to players indicating that before he would step in as head of the NHLPA, the players would need to "overwhelmingly vote" to accept his appointment. Before a vote, Fehr said he would meet with the players of each team.
He wanted his appointment to be unanimous and have everyone on board. He knew that he could not operate effectively if the NHLPA did what it has done in the past - splintered off into rogue groups. Fehr appreciated the importance of solidarity from his days as the boss of the baseball union.
Fehr ran the MLB player union for 27 years before he stepped down in 2009. He was instrumental in making the union the most powerful in sports, and masterfully guided the players through the collusion grievances in the 80s (which resulted in an award of $280M to players) and the 1994-1995 strike. He also guided the players through CBA negotiations in 2002 and 2006, the first negotiations since 1970 that were achieved without a work stoppage.
As a young lawyer, Fehr assisted the MLBPA in the landmark Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally arbitration case. In 1977, Marvin Miller, head of the union, hired Fehr as general counsel to the MLBA.
In December 1985, Fehr was voted executive director of the MLBPA after having served as acting director since December 9, 1983. Fehr successfully challenged the owners' collusion, leading to the owners paying $280 million in damages to the players. He was instrumental in implementing the rejection of future admissions into the MLBPA by replacement players who planned to fill in during the strike of 1995. He is known for his fierce negotiating skills, and by many accounts, is smartest guy in the room.
On June 22, 2009, Fehr stepped down from the MLBPA executive director position. Shortly after leaving his position as Executive Director of the MLBPA, Fehr took up a position as an advisor to the NHLPA.
Fehr: Changed the NHLPA Culture
Fehr has dramatically changed the NHLPA culture. Gone are the days of midnight votes and misconduct.
We now have a Union that is thoughtful, considered and patient in its approach.
When the NHL made its dramatic proposal, the reaction from Fehr was not emotional. He indicated that they would carefully review the proposal and empirically assess its fiscal impact on the players - today and years from now. His membership echoed his position. Manny Malhotra cautioned people not to react emotionally.
“It’s a long process,” said Vancouver Canucks center Malhotra. “So instead of getting wrapped up emotionally and going off the handle, it makes far more sense to be educated in what they’re trying to propose and understanding in great detail, to make sure we know what to counter with.”
This is a direct result of Fehr’s leadership and stewardship.
From the start, Fehr’s approach has been inclusive and transparent. There are a record number of players participating in NHLPA meetings. Everything is discussed; everything is considered; everyone has a voice. The players not only respect Fehr, but also trust him. And we all know a hockey player's trust can be tough to shake.
Fehr's legacy is unequalled in the field of sports labor law except for his first boss and the godfather of sports unions, Marvin Miller.
Fehr hasn’t rushed back to the NHL with a counter proposal. He won’t. He will take his time to ensure that the matter is properly and fully canvassed. This deliberate and meticulous approach is now an integral part of the NHLPA.
Indeed, to date, Fehr's greatest accomplishment as Union head is that he has changed the NHLPA's culture.