Commentary

Donald Fehr comfortable in new role

Updated: March 23, 2012, 11:54 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Donald FehrDave Reginek/Getty ImagesDonald Fehr is getting himself and his bargaining team ready for the CBA negotiations.
Donald Fehr, the new executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association, has won admirers over time for his candor, intelligence, doggedness as a negotiator and devotion to core principles, even when it wasn't necessarily a boon to his popularity quotient.

That's the good news. Through the years, personality profiles have invariably described Fehr as "dour," lacking charisma or possessing an "icy" demeanor. "He'll never make it in the Catskills as a stand-up comic," Steve Greenberg, a former player agent and MLB official, once said of Fehr.

Or any other mountain range, Fehr's adversaries at the bargaining table might reply.

But what Fehr lacks in schmooze-ability, he makes up for in determination. He understands what it takes to work a room.

It's tempting for outsiders to think that a group of smart lawyers can lead professional athletes around by the nose and corral dozens of opinions into a consensus. But Fehr knows from experience that nothing undermines a sense of unity more than intellectually bullying the membership. He learned that lesson from his mentor, Marvin Miller, and applied it through 26 years with the Major League Baseball Players Association. It helped the players hold firm through several strikes, lockouts and other tests to their solidarity.

Now we'll see if Fehr's message plays as well on ice as it did on grass and dirt. For several months, Fehr has made regular appearances at arenas around Canada and the U.S., patiently answering questions, soliciting feedback and laying the groundwork for a well-educated membership. He's delivering lines from the same playbook, but now they're heard by defensemen from Red Deer rather than catchers from Cobb County and shortstops from Sugarland.

"While baseball and hockey players come from all over everywhere -- and work all over everywhere -- you can still do retail politics,'' Fehr says. "You can meet in the same room with everybody a couple of times a year. You can return all the phone calls, or the staff can. You can actually answer individual questions. And when you do that, you learn a lot. And hopefully they learn a lot about what you're doing.''

With hockey's labor agreement scheduled to expire on Sept. 15, there's little time to waste. Fehr was taken aback recently after he met with the players during the NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa, and a reporter's question suggested the meeting might have been inappropriate because it threatened to sully what should have been a celebratory occasion for the game.

"My answer is, I would be a pretty sorry excuse for somebody in a leadership position if I didn't take the opportunity to meet with them while the chance was there," Fehr says. "That's what you've got to do."

Can retail politics result in wholesale gains for the NHLPA -- or at the very least, a new collective bargaining agreement that maintains the status quo to a degree the players find satisfactory? The people most familiar with Fehr's track record wouldn't dare bet against him.

During his tenure with the MLBPA, Fehr had a profound impact on the industry. Under his leadership, the average player salary rose from $289,000 to $3.24 million, and the players won a $280 million collusion judgment in the late 1980s. To Fehr's chagrin, his string of victories in contract talks prompted media outlets to christen him "the most powerful man in sports" at various points in his tenure.

Fehr, Gene Orza and the players' association leadership also became a target of criticism for throwing up roadblocks to steroid testing before finally agreeing to a drug policy in 2003. The leadership took a pounding from all ends of the spectrum -- from George Will to Bob Costas -- for being tone deaf and slow to act until Congress intervened.

Even Fehr, in his farewell conference call as union leader, conceded, "If we, if I, had known or understood what the circumstances were a little better, then perhaps we would have moved sooner.'' But it's also worth noting that the recent media leaks in the case of Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun helped substantiate the old concerns about "privacy issues" that Fehr and the players' association had expressed for years.

[+] EnlargeBud Selig and Donald Fehr
Getty ImagesBud Selig and Donald Fehr didn't always see eye-to-eye.

The book on Fehr's contribution to sports labor history appeared to be closed when he announced his retirement in September 2009. He planned to go through his files, do some traveling and perhaps write a book. Fehr praised his successor, Michael Weiner, and seemed comfortable with the idea of transitioning to a less public, more serene existence.

Then a funny thing happened: Fehr spent time doing pro bono work for the NHLPA, establishing the structure of a constitution and helping educate the players on the role of labor unions in sports. The more his involvement increased, the more emotionally invested he became. Donald Fehr, a man genetically built to speak in legalese and parenthetical phrases, sounds downright sentimental in describing the experience.

"I was impressed with a couple of things,'' Fehr says. "The guys really wanted to put it back together. And they're really good guys who almost to a man want to do the right thing. They asked me if I can help out, and I agreed to do it because I like the players. It's no more involved than that.''

At 63, an age at which he might prefer to monitor C-SPAN or his stock portfolio, Fehr is spending lots of time in airports and hotels and talking about revenue sharing, competitive balance and advances in concussion research. He has gotten a second wind, and it has carried him back into the arena and into the fray.

After years of instability, the NHLPA has added a bona fide cleanup hitter to its leadership hierarchy. Miller, who led the baseball union from 1966 through 1982 and is still going strong at age 94, thinks Fehr brings welcome experience and direction to a hockey union that's been rudderless since Bob Goodenow's resignation in 2005.

"He's in a position to do things for them that none of the other people they've had could do," Miller says. "They made terrible choices before him. Now they finally made a good choice."

The baseball players that Fehr led for so many years also testify to his effectiveness as a leader.

"He was a rock, man," says Chipper Jones, the longtime Atlanta Braves infielder. "There's a reason why baseball's collective bargaining agreement is unlike anybody else's. It's because Donald Fehr unified the union. He pumped us up, got us behind a specific cause and made us stick to it.

"Donald Fehr and Michael Weiner are two of the smartest human beings I've ever met on the planet. If you want a guy looking out for the betterment of your career, you want those two guys in your corner. The track record speaks for itself."

Middle American

Even though Fehr has spent much of his adult life amid the concrete and steel of New York, he's a product of the American heartland. Fehr grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Prairie Village, Kan., as the oldest of three children. His father, Lou, owned a restaurant equipment company. His mother, Irene (who went by "Dolly''), helped run the business and also worked as a real estate agent in her later years.

Fehr's brother, Steve, says their parents "instilled a sense of pride and a work ethic, and a notion that you had to be honest and do the right thing."

Don Fehr was an Eagle Scout, a high school debate champion and a boyhood fan of the Kansas City Athletics, a perennial doormat team that served primarily as a de facto farm system for the New York Yankees. During trips to Municipal Stadium with his brother, Fehr developed an affinity for Vic Power, a Puerto Rican first baseman with a slick glove and an effervescent smile.

Fehr loves music, and has dabbled in the guitar and the piano, but he's probably most at ease when his nose is in a book. In "Lords of the Realm,'' a classic account of baseball labor history, author Jon Helyar unearthed the nugget that Fehr read the World Book Encyclopedia from cover to cover at age 12. A newspaper reporter once dropped into Fehr's hotel room and found a science fiction novel, a biography of the Roman emperor Augustus and a book on chaos and complexity theory. It would be an understatement to refer to him as "intellectually curious."

At the Indiana University, Fehr gained an appreciation for hockey through college friends from Chicago and Detroit. His mind flashes back to images of Ken Dryden and the great Montreal Canadiens teams in the 1970s.

"Did I have anything like the appreciation that I have now for the kind of skill, dedication and prowess it takes to play this game?" Fehr says. "The answer is, 'No, I did not.' I suspect I'm just beginning to understand now. Having said that, the players didn't hire me because I can help them play hockey games better."

By all accounts, Fehr's world view in the late 1960s and early '70s was shaped by the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War and the upheaval of the times. He worked on George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and channeled his energies into a variety of liberal causes.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school, Fehr entered the baseball realm during a turbulent period in the game's history. He landed a job with a firm that was helping the players' association prepare the cases for pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who successfully challenged baseball's reserve clause -- the system that tied players to teams for perpetuity. Fehr's efforts led to a job as general counsel under Miller, and eventually the executive director's seat.

So what now?

Fehr could come across as professorial and condescending at times during his tenure with the union. He's never been the warm-and-fuzzy type. But even the adversaries who had difficulty warming up to him considered him a formidable presence.

Stan Kasten, a longtime executive with the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, sat across the table from Fehr during numerous negotiations, and took note that Fehr always seemed oblivious to negative publicity. It was a handy character trait because the more financial gains baseball players achieved, the more Fehr, like Miller before him, became a target for fan discontent. He understood his role as a lightning rod in the process, and had no problems with it.

"Don's not just a traditional trade unionist," Kasten says. "He's very intellectual about the pursuit, and he's absolutely impervious to media criticism. It will not faze him a bit. And that's very important when you're when dealing in a world that has as much media attention as ours does. That's a real strength of his."

Fehr is understandably cautious in sharing his strategy and goals for the NHLPA in talks, and keeping his powder dry. While it's likely the rhetoric will become more heated and the news updates more alarmist this summer, Kasten thinks both sides will be hesitant to incur another Armageddon scenario after losing an entire season to labor strife in 2004-05. He's optimistic that an agreement can be reached without a shutdown or any games lost, and confident that Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can find a productive middle ground.

[+] EnlargeGary Bettman-Donald Fehr
Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesGary Bettman, far left, and Donald Fehr, second from right, have been at the same table before, testifying before Congress about steroids.

"Don is a realist," Kasten says. "I don't think he'll take his guys out. It seems unlikely because the scars of the most recent lockout are too fresh. There are guys who are still suffering and remember the pain. Clearly, the NHL is in a much stronger position today. And whether the relationship with Gary is good or not, both sides have an interest in not seeing that repeated.

"I think Don also understands that he's going to have to establish a record and the beginnings of unity. It's fine to say, 'We're all in this together. None of us are cracking,' but that's not how it works once the bell rings. Don knows that it takes years to build up organizational and institutional strength. He understands that aspect better than anyone."

In a nutshell, Fehr can do all the "retail politics" he wants. But it takes time for the message to resonate the way it did in baseball. The players involved need to have their input, become educated and begin to feel more and more responsible for those who come after them.

Only Fehr knows how much time and energy he's ready to commit to the process, but he certainly seems to be enjoying his involvement. During a recent 30-minute phone conversation, he sounded more relaxed and gregarious than the tightly wound baseball version of Donald Fehr. He's no longer entrusted with perpetuating Marvin Miller's legacy, and is carving out a second legacy to call his own.

What is he hoping to achieve with this second act? His objectives seem modest at first glance.

"I want to be able, with the players, to negotiate an agreement that they are proud of, that they are satisfied with and were a part of forming," Fehr says. "I want them to have that agreement, and begin a relationship with us to set the stage for other things in the years to come. I know that's sort of amorphous, but it's really the goal here."

It's not easy walking on skates, but the same cliché applies, regardless of the sport: Donald Fehr is taking things one step at a time.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer