Report: Donald Fehr Agrees to Become Head of NHL Players’ Association

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The NHL Players’ Association appears to have finally landed a new leader. And he’s no stranger to labor strife in professional sports.

According to a report in the Sports Business Journal on Wednesday night, Donald Fehr has agreed to accept the position as the NHLPA’s executive director. That post has been open since a controversial ouster of previous executive director Paul Kelly almost exactly a year ago on Aug. 31, 2009.

Fehr, 62, served as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association for more than 20 years, guiding that powerful union through a series of work stoppages and contentious negotiations as the baseball players built the strongest union in sports.

Under Fehr’s stewardship from 1986-2009, the average salary for MLB players rose from $289,000 to $2.9 million and MLB is the lone major sports league that remains without a salary cap. That came at the expense of several work stoppages, including a strike in 1994-95 that forced the cancellation of the World Series. Baseball has had labor peace for 15 years since, and in 2002 and 2006 Fehr led the union to the first new labor deals without a stoppage since 1970.

Fehr has been advising the NHLPA in the past year, helping the union to rewrite its constitution.

His ascension to the NHLPA’s top spot would signal that the union is finally getting prepared the next round of labor wars between the players and owners that is looming on the horizon. The current CBA, which was born out of an entire season lost to an owners’ lockout in 2004-05, is due to expire after the 2011-12 season.

The opening shots in that next battle may already have been fired with the league’s rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk’s 17-year, $102-million deal with New Jersey. That ruling was upheld by an arbitrator and Kovalchuk remains unsigned, as do many other veteran players caught in the crunch with teams lacking space under the salary cap.

Fehr would give the NHLPA a strong leader to stand up for the players’ rights in the upcoming CBA negotiations, but his past record of hard-line stances with the baseball owners might not bode well for avoiding another labor stoppage in two years.

Fehr’s appointment has not been officially announced, and James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday night that Fehr must still be approved by a vote from the 30 player representatives of the NHL clubs. According to Mirtle, that vote may not come until after the start of the upcoming season, but it “is believed to be a formality.”

With Fehr in the fold, the NHLPA may finally prove a worthy adversary for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners after years of disarray. That will be welcome news to the players. It may not be as comforting to fans, who face the unappealing prospect of yet another potential work stoppage in 2012.

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