- Associated Press - Thursday, August 26, 2010

TORONTO | A top official of the National Hockey League Players' Association denied reports Thursday that Donald Fehr, the former leader of baseball’s players’ union, accepted an offer to take the top job at the NHLPA.

Mike Ouellet, the NHLPA’s chief of business affairs, praised Fehr’s work as an unpaid adviser to the players on Thursday, but said no appointment has been ratified by the executive committee. Ouellet refused to comment when asked if Fehr was a leading candidate.

“For the reports to come out and say that an offer has been accepted is, to say the least, a little premature just given the process,” Ouellet said. “No recommendation has been made to the executive board, yet.”

Fehr, 62, has been serving as an unpaid consultant since November. The office has been vacant since Paul Kelly was fired last August, less than two years after assuming the role.

“He’s got a tremendous wealth of experience in this area,” Ouellet said. “I don’t think there’s anybody on the planet that has the type of experience he has working for a professional sports union. And that’s been very valuable for the players.”

Fehr is a veteran negotiator who developed a reputation as a hard-nosed adversary during a career that spanned a quarter-century with the Major League Baseball Players Association. Baseball endured several work stoppages and one canceled World Series — in 1994 — under his watch.

Ouellet said any appointment would have to be ratified by the NHLPA’s 30-man executive committee. Each NHL team has a representative on the committee.

“I think it’s always important to have leadership in your organization that can reassure people of what they’re doing, to help chart a path,” Ouellet said, noting the Olympics and the idea of a world cup as two issues left idle in the leadership vacuum.

At least two high-ranking NHL executives have offered measured congratulations to the NHLPA amid the reports it had hired Fehr.

“In my mind, a strong union is better for us as a sport than a fractured union,” Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. “If that’s the choice they’ve made, I respect Donald Fehr. And I think it’s good news if they’ve put a leader in place.”

Many of the game’s biggest names assembled in Toronto for the four-day world hockey summit, which wrapped up at a downtown hotel Thursday with a news conference featuring the main stakeholders, including the NHL and the NHLPA.

“Obviously I think it’s important for the players’ association to have a head, and the sooner they do that the better, from our perspective,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “But as far as I know, there’s been nothing official at that point, so I’ll reserve comment on that.”

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with its players is set to expire in September 2012. There has been speculation that Fehr’s addition to the NHLPA could lead to another labor disruption.

“I always assume that the guy on the other side of the table’s going to give us a hard battle,” Burke said. “That’s what they get paid to do. But I think we have a pretty good leader on our side, too.”