- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 5, 2011

TORONTO (AP) - Donald Fehr has never been more excited about the start of a hockey season.

The still new executive director of the NHL Players’ Association came to hockey a little later in life and finally feels as though he knows the sport well enough to truly enjoy it.

More importantly, the former head of the powerful baseball players’ union is looking forward to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the league _ the main task he was hired to perform.

Those discussions are scheduled to begin shortly after the NHL All-Star break at the end of January.

“That’ll give us several months to conduct the negotiations,” Fehr told The Canadian Press. “I would like to believe we won’t need that long, but that much time will be available.”

Unlike many fretful fans who are worried about a repeat of the 2004-05 lockout, Fehr doesn’t see any reason for talks to go right up until the end of the current CBA on Sept. 15, 2012 _ let alone beyond it.

Much of the last year has been devoted to educating himself on the issues, determining what the players want, and helping rebuild the union’s staff. In the process, Fehr made an interesting discovery that seems to suggest the path to the next CBA might not be as acrimonious as the last one.

“Bargaining is usually difficult _ that’s not a prediction and it’s not a claim that the people on the other side are difficult people, it’s just that the nature of union-management relationships mean that they tend to be adversarial,” he said. “On the other hand, I become more persuaded over time that this particular sport has a lot of opportunities. (There’s no reason) we can’t find a way jointly to try and explore them and to try and take advantage over the next several years.

“If I can be helpful in trying to do that and moving this sport to a level that it hasn’t been at before … that’s something that would give me a lot of satisfaction I think.”

During his 26 years in charge of the baseball union, Fehr garnered a reputation for being a fierce negotiator. He oversaw five labor contracts for the players and was in charge during a seven-plus month strike in 1994-95 that forced the cancellation of the World Series.

Since joining the NHLPA _ first as a special assistant, then as executive director in September 2010 _ he’s made an effort to get out and meet as many people involved in the sport as possible. Most recently, he’s been in Europe spending time with the teams opening the season there. He will later continue his fall tour with stops around North America.

Fehr also conducted about a dozen sessions with players in various locations over the summer, educating them on what to expect with the upcoming negotiations.

“Those meetings were in large part about the process of collective bargaining,” Fehr said. “What the role of the staff is, what the far more important role of the players are, how you organize that, how you determine upon which issues to proceed, what the time schedules might be and all of that kind of thing. When you’re engaged in collective bargaining in a union-management atmosphere, there’s a process you have to go through.

“And it’s not something that you know intuitively, you have to learn it.”

In Fehr’s experience, each negotiation plays out in its own unique way and he can’t predict how it will go when he sits across the table from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL. But he remains confident that there are plenty of areas for the business to grow _ something which would clearly benefit both sides.

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