The Hockey News - Money & Power
AGE: 70 | TOP 100: 6 NHLPA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
DONALD FEHR IS a lot of things. The executive director of the NHL Players’ Association is a litigator at heart and a tough negotiator at the bargaining table who doesn’t use theatrics to get his point across.
He can be standoffish at times and is said to have a cranky, scowling demeanor. He doesn’t suffer fools easily, works at a glacial pace and doesn’t make quick decisions. He’s also a 70-year-old grandfather who is in the deep autumn of his career as a sports-union leader.
“He is exceptionally bright and intuitive,” said Fay Vincent, the former Major League Baseball commissioner who worked closely with Fehr in the late 1980s when he was executive director of the MLB Players’ Association. “He can cut to an issue quickly. He is used to being lied to, so he views things with that background.
I think you have to judge him in what he is and what he learned along the way in baseball, and most of what he learned was not a pretty story.”
What Vincent was referring to was a period in MLB that had a profound impact on Fehr, on baseball and on professional sports overall. Fehr graduated from Indiana University and got his law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. When the MLBPA won a crucial free-agency grievance in 1975, owners felt certain they would win the case on appeal and they chose Kansas City as the site for the appeal. Fehr was working as a lawyer in Kansas City and the union brought him on as a local counsel, where he got to know union head Marvin Miller. The union won the appeal and Miller hired 29-year-old Fehr as the MLBPA general counsel in 1977. Fehr became the MLBPA executive director six years later at 35.
His early years were defined by battles against collusion among the team owners. The MLBPA successfully charged management with conspiring against free agents following the 1985, ’86 and ’87 seasons in violation of the labor contract and settled the cases for $280 million. Fehr led the union through a two-day strike in 1985, a lockout in 1990 and baseball’s devastating 1994 strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series and the shortening of the 1995 season. “He is not a businessman from my point of view,” Vincent said. “He is a litigating lawyer. He has to be seen realistically as a lawyer. He knows legal issues very well. He is not a capitalist in that sense. Indeed he has real doubts about capitalism, or at least he expressed them to me. I think he has political views that are way, way to the left, but he is very clever and he understands that those views can’t dominate, that it is still a world of the capitalist structure, and he is in the business of getting his players treated properly…He starts with the supposition that owners are to be viewed very warily, with considerable suspicion. But given his experience in baseball, he has every right to have that point of view.”
Fehr announced his intention to leave the MLBPA in June 2009, and less than six months later agreed to serve as an NHLPA advisor. He was named NHLPA executive director in December 2010. Fehr’s role as the union boss is to make sure players get their fair share of the revenue pie – a pie that’s never been bigger – and to see that their rights are not trampled upon by owners. “Don is very experienced at what he does,” said Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner. “I generally find him thoughtful and likeable, but there is
never a question about which side of the table he is coming from. I wouldn’t consider Don a ‘numbers guy’ at all. He’s very much about bigger picture and longer term.”
Fehr is a consensus builder and broke with tradition when he invited players from all ranks, not just the union’s leadership group, to participate in collective bargaining. But he’s not been letter perfect. Critics point to how he dropped the ball when Olympic participation somehow disappeared from the last collective bargaining agreement. After agreeing to have their part of their wages put through escrow, players were surprised to learn they had to pay their own health insurance and that their pension is 100-percent funded by players.
The PA has earned a reputation for eating its own in the executive suite, and Fehr had to quell a revolt by player agents last year over how the union interprets hockey-related revenues, which is crucial to setting the salary cap. Fehr has said he will lead the NHLPA into the next round of collective bargaining talks, but that might be his swan song in union leadership.
In 2016, Fehr was asked by the Chicago Tribune about his legacy: “All I can tell you is this: when I first went to Marvin Miller early on, he said, ‘Just remember, you’re not going to get a lot of public acclaim no matter what you do.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Unions are only in the news when there’s a problem. The bigger the problem, the more you’re in the news.’ Turns out he was right.
“Also, there’s the question of who is defining what a legacy is. I work for the players. It’s all I work for and I owe my entire allegiance and loyalty to them. And if at the end they think I did a credible job, they think I worked in their best interests, they think that I kept the organizations democratic so they were in control and I did the right thing the overwhelming proportion of the time, that’s good enough. The rest doesn’t matter. Except I’d like my grandchildren to think I was cool.”