BRATISLAVA – Donald Fehr, the NHLPA’s executive director since 2010, addressed the IIHF Annual Congress on Thursday. Later that day, IIHF.com sat down with the former baseball union chief to discuss his philosophy and various international hockey issues. This is Part One of a two-part interview.
Can you talk about why you’re here and what you talked to the IIHF Congress about?
I’m new in my role with the NHLPA, obviously. What I wanted to do was take the opportunity with everybody here to come over and meet some of the people. To make a few remarks at the Congress, which was essentially in the nature of introducing myself and express the hope that we could develop a good working relationship. They haven’t thrown me out yet, so I guess it went all right! [laughs]
What are your impressions of the IIHF World Championship?
This is the second one I’ve been to. I was in Germany last year. They’re always interesting. You’ve got committed fans, you’ve got a lot of enthusiasm. The people here representing the various federations are obviously intensely interested in and heavily involved and very emotionally committed. That’s what you want to see.
When you come to a tournament like this, who are some of the key players in NHL or international hockey circles that you like to have a chance to talk with?
Well, I have a rule that I kept for all 33 years in baseball, which is that conversations with players are confidential and I just don’t ever talk about them. So, you’ll have to respect me on that one. The rule is pretty simple. Players have a right to have those conversations kept confidential. It’s just better not to talk about them, so I don’t.
What do the players see as the connection between international hockey – the Olympics, the World Championship, the World Cup – and the NHL?
I think that probably differs a little bit from individual to individual and country to country. When you grow up and you’re involved in and play for a federation team, and you follow the championships that those teams play in, that means a lot to you. If you’re Canadian, especially, or American, secondarily, you grow up with the Stanley Cup too. Less so over here. I think you tend to view them as separate events, each worth a lot in its own right.
In the old days, it was easier to consider them separate, because there was that distinction between amateur players and professional players. Now you’ve got one player who does all those things.
The world we live in now is entirely different. It’s a world of instantaneous communication and very rapid travel and the ability to move and do different things. Most of us try to do a lot of things that people 25 or 30, much less 50 years ago would have thought impossible and crazy, probably both. We all do it. Somehow you make it work. From a player standpoint, nobody’s expressed it to me this way, but I’ve never asked the question, so they wouldn’t have had the occasion to. I think there’s a desire to participate and be a part of everything.
Talk a little bit about the passion you have for negotiating and what prompted you to get into hockey after all the years you spent in baseball.
You don’t do what I’ve done – you don’t work on players’ association staffs or union staffs unless you want to represent the organization or group and want to help out the individuals. In my case, you want to help out the players and make the world right for them if you can. It sounds sort of silly, but people get into these things because they’re a little bit cause-oriented. Then you get into the details and you get consumed a bit by the day-to-day job. So that’s the first step.
The second thing is that what makes it more difficult in professional sports, and at the same time more rewarding, is that the stakes are higher. By which I don’t mean the money or the notoriety or anything like that. What I mean is that if you represent people in a normal business enterprise, those people can expect to work in that business for 20 or 25 or 35 years. So if you have an agreement for two or three or four years and it doesn’t work out so well, you can change it, and you can do things better.
When you’re dealing with professional athletes, the turnover rate is so high that for many of them, they’ll be there through one negotiation, or maybe one and a little more. So the pressure is on you to really get it right all the time. That’s both daunting and something that charges up your batteries.
The last thing is, why did I do hockey specifically? I’ve said this a lot, and I think people are making it up, but I’m not: when the guys asked me to do some consulting and reconstitute the organization a bit, I’d known a few of the guys, but hadn’t really known them well, hadn’t worked with them a lot. Over the course of six or seven month, doing part-time consulting, I got to know a lot of the guys and liked them. You find a lot of people that you really like and want to help them out. That got me to this stage. My hope is that we can reconstitute the organization and put a good staff together, independent of any single person in it, including its director. Then hopefully we’ll get an agreement that the players are proud of and satisfied with.
When you first started, you talked about a steep learning curve, from meeting the players to learning about the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). How comfortable are you now with the players, the game, and the CBA?
I have a pretty good comfort level with the players. I’ve seen them a number of times, I’ve had lots of meetings. I’m beginning to anticipate with a fair degree of accuracy what responses are going to be to things. Obviously, exposure to the CBA, watching how it operates in practice, is fundamentally different in a lot of ways than reading it on paper. So that always takes some effort.
Even so, just like baseball, hockey is very tradition-bound. It’s a world a bit unto itself. In some cases, words don’t have their ordinary English meaning. They have a meaning that is specifically related to the sport based on history and so on. That takes some time to get to know. My goal was not to try to learn everything at once. My goal was to absorb it in a fashion that made sense, so that by the time we get to the negotiations, I’ll have it all down. I’m satisfied that curve’s going fine.
International hockey fans are very interested in whether NHL players will participate in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. How do you plan to approach that question?
My position on it is that over the next period of time – and I don’t know exactly how long it’s going to be, but I’m sure there’ll be some discussions with players at our meetings this summer – is that you have to find out what they want. What I mean by that is not what they want or prefer in the abstract, but given the various kinds of possibilities that are real, what makes sense to them as a group. Is this something they want to do? On balance, is this something that creates more problems than it does when it’s in North America, simply because of the travel or time difference?
You have to look at either the extension of the regular season or the compression of the same number of games into fewer days. And you figure out how they feel about it. Then you have discussions with the NHL and the federation folks, and you see what comes out of that. These are not the easiest things in the world once you get into the details and try to work through them. Hopefully we’ll be able to get to a point where everybody’s satisfied. It’s going to take some effort.
Would you ever advocate something that’s not necessarily 100 percent good for the players, but is 100 percent good for the game?
Whenever someone asks me a question like that – and I’ve had variations on it for three decades, though obviously in a different sport – one of the things I’m not sure about is: what does the “good of the game” mean? In whose opinion, and defined against what standard? I don’t know what it means. When I first got into baseball, and this changed in baseball, but in the mid-70s, the “good of the game” meant whatever was good for the owners’ bank accounts. That’s what they took it to mean. It had no other meaning. So in some sense, it’s wrapped up in public relations.
About the best way I can answer that is that first, last, and always, my allegiance is to the players. You have to figure out what all the facts and circumstances are. You have to make sure the players are fully acquainted with them. You have to facilitate discussions that they need to have with one another as well as with staff. If you have a strong recommendation, either on an overall policy direction or on a specific detail, you make it.
In the end, it’s their decision to make. I think a lot of times people think, “Oh, you don’t really mean that seriously.” People think the players sit around the room and do what they’re told, as if they’re children in a classroom. They don’t, and they’re not. So you need to have that discussion with them. In the end, what they feel is the best and most appropriate resolution is the thing I want to my best to effectuate. If I have a difference of opinion, I’ll tell them. But it’s not my choice. It’s their choice.
The reason I feel about that so strongly is that if the union’s going to be successful, the players have to believe in it. They have to understand, it’s them. It’s not just staff. In professional sports, it’s actually pretty easy to understand that. Because the day that what the athletes do ceases to be entertaining – the day that people are no longer willing to expend sums of money and go to games – then we’re all in a much different world than we are now. What they really want is the absolutely critical thing.
To answer that slightly differently, I was one of the people in baseball who was interested – perhaps the most interested – in developing the game internationally. The World Baseball Classic, which is a baseball World Cup-type tournament, was our idea. It’s worked out well, and I think it’s going to work out fabulously well going forward.
Hockey, I think, has the possibility of being the most well-positioned of any of the North American sports to take advantage of international relationships and marketplaces, cross-ocean rivalries, and so on. So without having come to a conclusion on the best series of things to do or when it’s appropriate to do them, that’s something I intend to acquaint myself with and see if I can help facilitate it.
LUCAS AYKROYD & ANDREW PODNIEKS