Donald Fehr drew a crowd of reporters at last year's NHL All-Star Game with a potential lockout already a hot topic. His reputation had preceded him.
Named NHL Players' Association executive director in late 2010, Fehr was well-known for his time with the Major League Baseball Players Association. He took exception to a line of questions from a French Canadian reporter about being unpopular among fans based on his contribution to the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series.
"I think I know what my reputation is, and I think my reputation is pretty simple," Fehr responded. "It is that we tell the truth, we act in our constituents' interests in terms of what they want to do, and we've been reasonably successful in doing that. If that's a bad reputation, I'll take it."
So will the players now lining up behind Fehr in negotiations with NHL owners. Fehr's legacy may forever be linked to baseball, but he wasted no time gaining players' trust, even with a lockout all but certain to begin Saturday night at midnight.
"We have all the confidence in the world with Donald. He's a tremendous leader, he's very personable. He understands the hockey world even though he hasn't worked with us for that long," Washington Capitals forward Matt Hendricks said. "He likes our culture; he likes the union that he's working for, and I think his ability to reach out to players and get them to understand the issues that are at hand has been very important."
Fehr gets it, and that's not to say ex-union head Bob Goodenow didn't. But what Goodenow wasn't able to do in 2004-05 was keep the NHLPA from splintering. Olie Kolzig, a player then and now the Capitals' associate goaltending coach, said the NHLPA didn't have a "Plan B" when owners refused to budge.
This time, Fehr has plans and the players seem to have options. There's a widely held belief that players are more unified now, and he deserves much of the credit.
"Speaking with him, seeing how he approaches these negotiations and how he responds to the players, I have a ton of faith in him," New York Rangers forward Jeff Halpern said. "I know that any decision he makes or anything that's brought to the table, not just from his track record in baseball but the way he's gone about his business with the hockey union, my hands are pretty much in his decisions. He's left it up to the players the entire time. He stated that he works for the players, not the other way around."
And while it's unlikely Fehr's approach was all that different in baseball in 1994, there's no doubt he has learned from that experience. Multiple times in the past several months he hasn't been afraid to point out that MLB now has the most stable labor situation of the four major team sports in North America.
Perhaps it's unfair to put the blame for 1994 on Fehr or baseball commissioner Bud Selig, just as it's hard to link that directly with the NHL's current labor strife.
"When the strike happened in 1994 with Major League Baseball, that was coming on the heels of the collusion that was charged against the major league teams as well," NHL Network analyst Craig Button said last month. "We can go back 18 years; that climate was very different. I don't think it's fair to compare Donald Fehr today to what happened back then with that climate. He's got to deal with today's climate."
Today's climate doesn't feel even like 2004-05, when commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners were steadfast on their desire to implement a salary cap. It's less poisonous, but it appears, at least through meetings, emails and conference calls, players are more prepared.
"I'm very comfortable [with Fehr]," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said last week. "I think everybody trusts him, and we know exactly what we're going to do and we feel exactly what's going to happen."
It's a credit to Fehr but also an indicator of why this lockout could drag on. As Ovechkin said, players aren't going to give in this time.
That's also part of Fehr's reputation as a tough negotiator.
"You can say he's a hard negotiator. I think he just wants what's fair for the players," new Capitals defenseman Jack Hillen said. "And that's all we're trying to do is get a fair deal for both sides. He's sticking up for us; that's all you can ask of him."
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