Fehr appears, doesn't tip his hand

March, 25, 2010

TORONTO -- Donald Fehr had his first crack at hockey's power brokers Thursday and, from all accounts, did not disappoint.

"He was unreal," said one player agent who requested anonymity.

"After hearing Don's presentation, let's just say there is no one else who can hold his jock strap if he decides to do it," said another agent, also off the record.

But like the 143 player agents on hand for their annual meeting with the NHL Players' Association, I left a downtown Toronto hotel not the slightest bit clearer on whether or not the former longtime baseball union leader will indeed take over hockey's top labor job.

Not that I'm surprised.

A man of Fehr's experience would never tip his hand. So, despite meeting with media after the meeting, he didn't give any hints of what lies ahead. For now, he remains an unpaid consultant for the NHLPA, an organization which has been without a leader since Paul Kelly was dismissed last August.

But here's what else he did not say Thursday, he did not say "No." He did not say at any point during his 10-minute scrum with reporters that he did not want the job. He left baseball's top union job Dec. 1 after 26 years at the helm.

"When I did that, I had no intention of looking for another full-time position," Fehr said Thursday.

Then, the NHL players came calling with a giant "HELP" sign last fall. The union was in disarray with different factions sniping at each other and the association was in desperate need for guidance. Fehr obliged.

"I was asked by some players if I could help them out," said Fehr. "I agreed to do that to help them through the process. That's basically about all I can say about it. The search process [for an executive director] has yet to unfold. I think it will be pretty quickly. If there's a change in my view, I don't think that'll be a secret to anybody.

"Having said that, I've had an opportunity to meet and talk to and work with a number of players. Not a tremendous number, but a number of players. I must say that I find them to be quite remarkable individuals. They're bright, they care, they want to try and do the right thing. I really enjoy it."

So, it sounds like you're somewhat intrigued by the job, Don.

"Don't put words in my mouth," said Fehr.

For the record, Fehr said he has not been offered the job. A search committee, which he is helping, will soon begin to list and interview potential candidates in earnest.

Of course, should Fehr decide he wants the job, one would think he'd step down from consulting the search committee to avoid a conflict of interest. God knows this players' union has had enough conflict and chaos over the years.

"If I ever got to the place where I said, 'This is a job I want,' and so on, then obviously that would have to be communicated," said Fehr. "Having said that, the ultimate responsibility with governing this process rests with the players. As long as they're informed, they'll make whatever decisions they will. I'm not in a position to comment about the process beyond that."

Fehr's credentials speak for itself. He left a sport that still doesn't have a salary cap. No players' union is stronger in pro sports. His hiring as executive director, should it ever come to pass, would not be welcome news at the NHL head office.

"You don't run an association like the Major League Baseball Players Association as long as he has without being substantive, powerful, politically correct, reasoned and very intelligent," said veteran agent Pat Morris of Newport Sports, who represents the likes of Brad Richards, Chris Pronger and Mike Richards. "He displayed all those elements today."

But like all of us, Morris wasn't sure what the future holds.

"He left a very good job. Is that a signal he wouldn't take on a challenging job? That's up to him in the future, and it's up to the players more than anything," said Morris. "I think there's going to be some great candidates that will step forward here once the constitution rounds into form."

The decision lies with the players, said Pat Brisson of CAA Sports, the agent for Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, among others.

"He has a lot of experience, he understands athletes very well," said Brisson. "We're privileged. It's the right person at this point to help the players make a decision, but he didn't come out with any more than that. We still haven't seen the other candidates. I'm not part of the search committee, but I would say if he's involved in the process, he would be very helpful. Because of his experience, he's been in this situation before and I think he's going to be very helpful.

"He made a great impression on us today."

My prediction? Fehr takes on the job for a short term, perhaps through the next round of collective bargaining (2011 or 2012), and then grooms the next leader. That's what he just did in baseball.

"All of the agents and all the players would be totally blessed to have him take this job," said another agent who requested anonymity.

The players would be big winners. The hockey fans? I'm not so sure. Fehr is a well-established hard-liner, and if there's one thing this sport can never afford again, it's a work stoppage.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer




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