TORONTO - When Donald Fehr stepped down December 2009 as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, he figured he was through with the labour side of pro sports.
But now the 62-year-old finds himself a step closer to a return.
The National Hockey League Players' Association announced Saturday it has accepted the recommendation of its search committee to put Fehr's name to a vote among its membership to become the union's executive director.
Fehr has been serving as an unpaid NHLPA consultant since November.
"It was not something I expected," Fehr said. "It was something that came out of the processes and is what the player members of the committee thought was the best choice after evaluating the entire circumstances.
"I came to have more regard for the players during the regional meetings we held this summer . . . and when the players on the search committee asked me if I'd be willing to do this for a while I think I really began to focus on whether or not I thought I could do a good job with it, whether I thought I'd enjoy working with the guys going forward and whether I'd like it. The answer to those three questions turned out to be yes.
"It was a bit of a surprise to me. It was not what I expected to happen."
Players are expected to vote following individual team meetings during training camp later this month and early into the regular season. Members will also vote on various amendments to the NHLPA constitution.
Fehr said ultimately his fate rests with the players.
"If they feel comfortable about that (search committee recommendation) then I assume that will suggest they ought to vote to ratify the recommendation the board has made," he said. "If they don't then that would suggest the opposite.
"It's the players' judgement to make."
Fehr joined the Major League Baseball Players Association as its general counsel in 1977, and served as executive director for 26 years before stepping down.
If Fehr becomes the NHLPA's executive director, he'll take over an organization that's been plagued by turmoil and uncertainty in recent years. The union has had four different leaders since the end of the 2004-'05 NHL lockout.
What's more, the collective bargaining agreement between the NHLPA and the league is set to expire in September 2012. During his time heading up the baseball union, Fehr developed a reputation of being a fierce negotiator and led the baseball players through the 1994–95 strike and subsequent cancellation of the World Series.
And while the NHL lockout remains fresh in the minds of many hockey fans, Fehr says a work stoppage always remains a last resort.
"You bargain in good faith and you do everything you can to try and reach an agreement," he said. "You only come to it if you believe that the issues require it and there are no other viable options available to you.
"That was always the case in baseball and that's the philosophy that I would bring to representing hockey players or representing union members in any other industry. I would hope and I am prepared to assume unless and until events suggest otherwise that people we're negotiating with view a lockout and a work stoppage also as a last resort."
Fehr was quick to caution there's still plenty of time remaining on the NHL's current collective bargaining agreement but added that doesn't mean there's nothing for the new NHLPA executive director to do.
"Basically, the situation is this, there's a lot of work to be done," he said. "Especially with players who came into the league following the lockout to acquaint them with what the collective bargaining process is, how it affects what their day-to-day circumstances are . . . to explain the process of bargaining, to make sure everyone understands decisions are up to the players and they have to be involved and participate.
"The MLBPA has not been in a situation in which this union finds itself. There has been far more continuity in that organization than there has been in this one, especially over the last several years. Having said that, this is not a new process for this union. They've had some difficulties since 2005 but they had a fairly significant run of success and internal cohesion up until that point. It's a matter of, if you will, going back to basics.''
When asked to characterize the relationship that exists between the NHL and the NHLPA, Fehr said it was too soon for him to make an assessment.
"I'm not really in a position to do that on an informed basis,'' he said. "All I can tell you is collective bargaining, sort of by definition, is a bit of an adversary process.
"Having said that, it's obviously in the interests of both the players and the leagues to co-operate when they can and to eventually reach agreements that they both can live with and that they can operate under. I would not want to make a characterization certainly at this point before I have a really good feeling as to what that situation is. That will have to come down the road a bit.''
Something new Fehr would have to handle in potential negotiations with the NHL is a league-mandated salary cap, which doesn't exist in pro baseball. But he took a philosophical approach when asked about his opinion regarding a salary cap.
"I can tell you what my view was in baseball, which was it wasn't needed and I didn't think it was appropriate and I think events have pretty conclusively demonstrated that the union was right about that," he said. "All sports are different, the economics of all sports are different, the makeup of the membership is different.
"In the end, you have to make judgements based upon those kinds of things. It doesn't necessarily mean what works in one place works in another. On the other hand it also isn't necessarily true that just because something doesn't work somewhere means it won't work here.
"The process of evaluating what the players' position would be on the central economic issues is something that has to be worked on in depth with the players and they'll come to a conclusion. I am certain that well before negotiations begin everybody will know what that conclusion is.''