Fehr: NHL poised to grow with labour peace

Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players' Association. (Louis Lanzano/AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Donald Fehr was holding court at a table inside a large hotel ballroom, where NHL players and agents were casually enjoying a late breakfast during the league’s recent All-Star weekend.

With the top button of his white shirt undone and his sport coat hanging off the back of a chair, the executive director of the NHL Players Association broke into a grin recalling the advice a late friend and mentor once had about running a professional sports union.

"Marvin Miller told me my first week on the job, ‘Just remember, the only time you’re in the news is when there’s a problem,"’ Fehr said, referring to his predecessor as Major League Baseball’s union chief. "He’s right."

Not entirely.

A day earlier, Fehr shared the podium with none other than his one-time adversary, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, to announce the return of the World Cup of Hockey in 2016 and plans to make the international tournament a quadrennial event. The deal was a collaborative effort between the owners and players.

It was regarded as the first significant sign of a thaw in a relationship that has seen four work stoppages in 20 years, including the lockout that wiped out nearly half of the 2012-13 season. The World Cup comes amid long-term labour peace achieved in a collective bargaining agreement that runs through 2022 — a deal that ended an unnerving cycle in which players and owners finished negotiating one pact only to begin formulating grievances to prepare for the next one.

With the horizon suddenly clear, Fehr believes the NHL is entering an era of growth across North America and beyond. The league is approaching $4 billion in annual revenue but still lags behind the NFL, baseball and NBA.

"We have the biggest upside and the biggest opportunity," Fehr told The Associated Press.

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That potential growth is reflected in the NHL’s international ties, with 25 per cent of its players coming from Europe. Though the first World Cup will feature only eight teams, five made up of European players, the NHL is considering expanding the format after 2016. There is also a proposal to establish a regular Ryder Cup-style tournament, pitting European players against North Americans.

"What we have to be able to do is basically demonstrate, explain, show to sports fans and non-sports fans what this game is all about, and what the people who play it are all about," Fehr said. "And if that doesn’t produce significant movement and attractiveness to the game, we’re in big trouble. But I think it will."

Bettman shares that vision and credits Fehr’s arrival with providing the game — and union — much-needed stability after the NHLPA went through a lengthy stretch of upheaval and infighting after a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. Following Bob Goodenow’s resignation in July 2005, the union went through three executive directors before Fehr took over in 2010.

"It’s not a coincidence that the last decade-plus we haven’t had a World Cup because we haven’t had anybody to deal with on a long-term stable basis at the union to make decisions that had to be made to do an international tournament," Bettman told the AP. "The fact that we’re now in a situation where there’s a strong union, which I believe is important and a good thing, we can pursue mutual goals and objectives to build the game."

The World Cup is projected to bring in $120 million. Labor peace has also allowed the league to reach long-term broadcasting contracts, including a 12-year, $5 billion deal with Canada’s Rogers Communications. And there’s even talk of expansion, with Las Vegas and Seattle expressing interest as potential markets.

The owners, Bettman noted, deserve credit, too, for insisting on a salary-cap based system that has provided cost certainty and competitive balance.

"While we paid a huge, huge price for that, a long-term CBA is only a good thing if you have a system that’s working. And the system is working," Bettman said. "Working co-operatively with the players’ association enables us to do more things to build on that foundation."

Fehr has the respect of the NHL and earned the trust of players, who were initially uncertain how his baseball background would translate to hockey.

"Him bringing that experience was reassuring to us as players because we just want to play," Minnesota Wild defenceman Ryan Suter said. "If he can get another major league sport going with no stoppages, that’s pretty important."

Hockey’s labour peace is consistent with how Fehr ended his term in baseball. Salaries skyrocketed after the players’ strike cancelled the 1994 World Series.

Fehr’s reputation as a cold, calculating hard bargainer followed him to hockey, which was not lost on fans and the media in the months leading up to the NHL’s last lockout. At the 2012 All-Star game in Ottawa, a reporter accused Fehr of lacking compassion for fans.

That was but a distant memory for Fehr in Columbus last month. He had difficulty remembering the exchange before being informed that, in retrospect, he had not ruined hockey as some feared.

"Not yet," Fehr said, smiling. "Give me a chance."

At 66, he can joke now, unsure what challenges and opportunities lie ahead.

"I don’t even know how to answer that," Fehr said. "But right now, it’s fun and the opportunity is great. And it’s satisfying."

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