Donald Fehr, the executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association, doesn't seek the media spotlight. But, at the beginning of what promises to be a monumental week for the NHL, he agreed to talk with ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun about a variety of topics facing the NHL and the players, including expansion, future Olympic participation, 3-on-3 overtime, drug testing and labor peace. Here's an edited version of that conversation:
ESPN.com: Let's kick things off with a difficult subject for your player membership, the question of escrow and the potential 5 percent escalator (for purposes of calculating the salary cap). How tough is it every year -- but maybe more than ever -- to make that decision as a group?
Don Fehr: It's not a secret that what we expected, at the time the last (collective bargaining agreement) was signed, was that we'd have a break-in period more or less due to the change in the share size (the new CBA in 2012-13 split hockey-related revenue at 50-50 between owners and players), which was ameliorated to a significant extent with the transition payments -- there's another $100 million that comes this October; I think that's the last payment -- that we'd have a break-in period and then escrow would begin to fall. And would be falling toward zero and maybe moving in the other direction.
From what I can tell, but for the foreign exchange issue -- the relative fall of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar, which has been really precipitous and somewhat unprecedented in the speed with which it fell during the past couple of years -- that we would be moving in that direction. We're not. And that's a real issue.
What the guys talk about when they discuss the issue are the things that you would talk about: First is, to the extent that the (5 percent) growth factor is applied, what does that do to the escrow either in an absolute sense or a relative sense given the other things that are baked in at this point? And then, secondly, if you don't have it, what does that do to players who are negotiating contracts this year or who may be affected by that? What I mean is, if you have a team that is, say cap-challenged -- meaning that they are right at the cap or very close, and they have to clear some cap space -- well they can make a number of choices. They can not sign players, that's one thing. They can trade players, that's a second [option] and that perhaps puts you in a position to trade players you maybe didn't want to trade. Or you can buy out players who perhaps you didn't want to buy out in order to create the cap space.
So you have those twin poles you're dealing with: the absolute amount of the escrow and what having an increase in the cap means for purposes of people negotiating contracts or would be affected by it. Those are the things players discuss.
ESPN.com: Can you share what ultimately has been the decision on the 5 percent growth factor?
Fehr: No, I can't yet. I'll be astonished if it takes more than another 48 hours. It could. But we're right at the end and I really can't say anything more about it at the moment.
ESPN.com: During your fall tour of all 30 teams, which has become more of a fall/winter tour now, outside of escrow, what would you say has become the next most popular topic amongst the players?
Fehr: That's a hard one, because it really varies depending on the team you're with, whether it's a veteran team or a young team. The other issue that commands a fair amount of discussion at virtually all meetings is what we hope will be significant growth in international hockey; or games outside the normal North American format in various venues and various kinds of tournament play. I think the guys recognize that that's the next step. And it's the next step that you pretty well have to take in order to move hockey to the forefront of international team sports, which is where everybody thinks it should be. It has to become much more of an ongoing, regularized high-visibility international product as distinct from a North American one. Now, I don't mean to suggest by that, that I would ever expect that to overtake the regular season and the playoffs and so on in terms of what they mean for players. But that's where the growth is, or a big aspect of where the growth is.
ESPN.com: That's a nice segue into my next question, which is about the Olympics. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said before the Stanley Cup finals that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had communicated it wasn't in a position to guarantee some of the same safeguards that it had in the past to the players and to the league. Which, in Bettman's words, threatened future Olympic participation. What is your stance on that right now?
Fehr: The first thing is, all things being equal, the players clearly want to play in the Olympics. They think it's a special thing. They think it's important. It means a lot to them, and not only just to the Europeans. So you want to try to do it if you can.
Secondly, however, it has to be done on a basis that is equitable to all concerned. I think everybody recognizes -- but sometimes doesn't appreciate or forgets during the discussion -- that, as far as I know, the NHL is the only league that shuts its doors for two and a half weeks or so in the middle of a season, adjusts its schedules, its planning and everything else, in order to go and [play in] the Olympics. Nobody is looking to make any money out of the Olympics, but what they are looking for is to have the basic costs covered. Now, having said that, for the Sochi Games, the negotiations weren't completed until well after the preceding Summer Olympics had concluded. So I think it's fair to say we're still somewhat early in the game. And, given the circumstances down in Rio, about which there's been lots of publicity, I suspect that the IOC is otherwise occupied.
ESPN.com: What about NHL's experiment with 3-on-3 overtime? How do the players feel 3-on-3 OT went this season, and is that something you want to touch on with the league this summer?
Fehr: Well, it's sort of interesting. When [3-on-3 OT] began, of course, there was pretty widespread agreement among the players that if we were going to change the rules, to have overtime before the shootout, it ought to go directly to 3-on-3 and not the longer 4-on-4 and then 3-on-3. And then there was sort of a breaking-in period. We did get a few questions from players, and some people raised some issues. But, at least in terms of what's come to me, that ended before Christmas. I really haven't heard further comments from players suggesting that we should modify it or change it. I think people are basically satisfied with it and, as far as I know, there's not going to be a move to modify it anytime soon. It does add an element of excitement to the end of the game, which I think a lot of fans -- and players -- are happy with.
ESPN.com: Drug testing was a topic that generated some buzz at the start of this past season in light of some comments from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly about possible increase in players' cocaine use but also based on some arrests that happened a year, a year and a half ago. It's been quiet since then. Based on your conversations with players, where do you feel that issue (drug testing) is headed?
Fehr: As you would expect, we always go over all the relevant issues related to testing with players -- in our fall tour meetings and [NHLPA] Board discussions and individual conversations. Whether it's PEDs, or recreational drugs, it's something that players engage in a fair amount of discussion about. And I suspect that, before next season begins, we'll have another round of discussions with the NHL about it to see if there are changes which ought to be made or could be made going forward that everybody would agree with.
ESPN.com: Specifically further testing, right?
Fehr: That's one area, yes. That's one area. You could change the way it's done. There are a number of things that could potentially be considered.
ESPN.com: The league has a Board of Governors vote on Wednesday regarding expansion to Las Vegas. Generally speaking, what's your sense of how the NHLPA and the players feel about adding another team?
Fehr: Well, I think you would get the reactions that you would expect and I think they're divided into two areas. One, if an expansion team is viable and we can get the extra jobs and raise the footprint of the game and all the rest of it, that's a good thing to do. That's something that everybody is interested in.
But people want to make sure it doesn't have an adverse impact on escrow or anything like that. Then when you go one step further and say: Where should [expansion] be? Well, everybody has a favorite city, and some of them arguably have potential ownership groups and some have arenas -- and others don't have one or the other or both.
That said, the NHL has the primary responsibility of determining: do they want to expand and, if so, to where? And when? And then, we have obviously an obligation to try and protect the players' interests by negotiating an agreement with the NHL which would allow expansion to occur on a basis that the players can live with. And once that's done, I think it's generally a pretty positive thing and people hope for the best.
ESPN.com: Speaking of the NHLPA's relationship with the league, some rather terse media statements were exchanged between each side in the wake of the drawn-out appeals process of Dennis Wideman's suspension. Besides the statement that came out from your side, what are your feelings on how that played out?
Fehr: In one sense, I'm not surprised. No commissioner likes to have his decisions overturned. It happened in baseball in connection with Ferguson Jenkins in 1979. Baseball seems to have done OK since then. Hockey is going to do fine. We're not at all worried about the case. We're virtually certain that the arbitrator's award will be upheld. Awards in labor arbitration are very, very difficult to overturn, and with good reason. We don't see a basis for it here. That said, we'll defend our position in court and await the outcome.
ESPN.com: What about concussion protocol? Obviously the sport has brought in some measures over the years to help curb concussions and help deal with concussions when they happen. How do you feel things are working presently with the NHL on this, and how the players are treated in that regard?
Fehr: Well, I don't think this is something in which you can ever say, "OK we're completely satisfied and we're going to wash our hands of it and never look at it again." It's something that you have to constantly review, constantly update yourself as to what the best state-of-the-medical arts and science is. And talk to your constituents, talk to the doctors, talk to the people at the NHL and make the best judgment you can. And that's an ongoing process. It goes on every summer, and it is ongoing now. I'm just hopeful that the protocols we have in place can be made to work as well as they possibly can. And then, secondly, can be made as good as they possibly can. I think we're clearly moving in that direction and everybody is working hard at it. The critical thing it seems to me is that where you have some sort of an observable sign of a concussion, that medical people would treat that right away, that the player gets evaluated basically before anything else happens.
ESPN.com: The last question, this one regarding labor peace: What's your prognostication at this point, based on your comfort level with the other side and how things are playing out, as to what will happen with the next CBA?
Fehr: First of all, in terms of how things are playing out with the other side, I wouldn't want the readers to have the view that labor disputes are personality-driven. The owners have a constituent set of interests, and the players do. And where they are adverse to one another -- as with respect to a salary cap or the division of it, or a whole of other issues -- you're going to have a tussle.
The history is, for the past 20 years, that in the salary-cap sports there has been a labor dispute every time they negotiated and it's always [resulted in] a lockout. I mean, the NFL even locked out its referees, for goodness' sake. So that's the starting point. When you prepare, you prepare for the worst -- and you hope for the best. But it's not something that is going to come around or arise because people have hurt feelings with respect to one another. It's because the interests can be different.
That said, we have, I think, for the most part a professional working relationship with the NHL. And I hope and expect that that will continue. I hope and expect that our international efforts will foster an attitude that makes it a little more likely -- rather than a little less likely -- that we find a way to work some things out.
We're a ways away from bargaining. It's not on the horizon for tomorrow. But those things have a habit of creeping up sooner rather than later.
ESPN.com: Thank you for your time, Don.