Peer-To-Peer Conversations: Donald Fehr on how the NHLPA is handling the COVID-19 pandemic

In a Q&A with The Hockey News' owner and publisher W. Graeme Roustan, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr chatted about the future of overseas travel, how the NHLPA has remained in contact with players and the next steps during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

In the midst of the NHL’s suspended season and the global coronavirus pandemic, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr spoke with The Hockey News’ owner and publisher W. Graeme Roustan about the future of overseas travel, how the NHLPA has remained in contact with players and the next steps during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Graeme Roustan: Don, I'd like to welcome to The Hockey News and Sports Illustrated Peer-to-Peer Conversation. Thanks for your time today.

Don Fehr: Thank you.

GR: First and foremost, you have a team at the NHLPA's office. How are they doing? Are they at work, or working at home?

DF: Our offices are in Toronto and most people live in Metropolitan Toronto. The office, at this point, is closed except for necessary people coming in to keep the servers operating and that kind of thing. All of the senior people that would be in contact with players or work with the NHL or with our licensees or anything like that are working from home. Everybody has electronic capabilities. We have either seven or eight or nine people that are at various locations in the States, too. So we're in contact. All the players and their agents have electronic communications, too. So while it's more cumbersome, and it's more difficult to have meetings and discussions by conference call, or email, in fact, it can get done, and we're all adapting and just hoping it doesn't last too long.

GR: The the PA has experience communicating with team reps via teleconference in the past. Is it still working today?

DF: Oh, sure. It's it's still working. We have five former players on staff, and they are in constant communication with player reps: very often with senior players, who have been around and have a lot of interest in how the union works, but also with the younger players.

Last week, we held team conference calls. I haven't added up the numbers, but I'm going to say we had between 400 to 500 players who participated on those calls. They're a little cumbersome, they're difficult. The logistical problems of trying to have conversations with multiple people go up in direct proportion to the number of people on the call, but you get it done. And I must say that whenever I've been in a crisis – although this one is different than anyone before, of course – I'm always struck by how thoughtful and how sober and how deliberate the players are in terms of coming to grips with the issues they face and making decisions about them. And that's certainly true here.

GR: Is it the PA's plan to have team calls on a frequent basis: monthly, weekly? Is there any structure to that, or is it just as an update from time to time?

DF: At this point, it's as needed. As we get closer to the point where hopefully we can resume, my guess is those will be more frequent. But you should understand that if we have executive-board conference calls, first of all, we get frequently lots of players who aren't technically on the executive board who have joined. And then the former players will reach out to the rest of the players on the teams, and then we'll get a series of telephone calls or emails or texts. So communication is really widespread.

GR: This is something that really none of us have seen in our lifetimes. What's the PA doing to assist players or communicate with players to get them through those emotional roller coasters that everybody is living with today?

DF: You do a number of things. First of all, you're in contact with the NHL to make certain that when nothing's going on, and there's no reason for people to stay in the club's home city, that if they don't live there, they can go home. They can go wherever they feel most comfortable to take care of themselves and their families, especially their kids. They have parents and grandparents they need to look out for and they should be able do that wherever that happens to be. And sometimes, there are border issues and immigration issues and issues relating to other things. We work through those on a case-by-case basis, and occasionally, you have hiccups and problems. But for the most part, you get it worked out. Athletes, of course, in the team sports are used to saying, "all right, we had a game today, we got another game tomorrow and then a game after that" and they very quickly put yesterday behind them.

And in this situation, the players are not in a position to be confronted with, OK, we'll do this until this date, and then we'll do something else. And we're going to resume on this other date down the road. And this is what the format's going to look like. So there's a lot of waiting involved. That said, the guys understand it. They understand what we're going through, they understand that we can't give them the answers we don't have, and that we don't want to guess.

GR: Is this something that, I know the PA does a lot for all the players, but is this the time where the team reps really step up and help out the other players?

DF: In large part, I think that's right. They feel, as a general rule, most of them, they have a responsibility. They have a responsibility to inform the players on their team. They have a responsibility to listen to them, a responsibility to relay their questions to us and then get the answers back or put them directly in communication with a lawyer on staff or the former players on staff. That is an extra role that they take on, and they take it on because it's the right thing to do. With any group of our size, you have people that will be leaders on different kinds of issues, and we certainly do. That was a case throughout my tenure in baseball also. But it's also the case that my staff really earns its pay during a crisis, too. In that regard, though, I'm not sure we're all that much different from most other groups or businesses and in the general society. When things are going well, it's easy. When things are not going well, that's when we find out.

GR: There's been a report of (two Ottawa Senators players who are) infected. I'm not asking specifics, but in general, when one member of a union is infected with the virus, how does the overall group feel? How do they deal with it? What are they thinking?

DF: I think there's two different reactions. First of all, virtually everyone assumes that in this kind of situation, sooner or later, we will have players that will contract the virus. We're not divorced from the general society, we're around our wives and families. You can self-isolate to a great extent, but you can't 100 percent. Somebody has to deliver the food to your door, for example. So everybody understands in the abstract that it's very likely sooner or later there will be a player or family members that are going to be positive.

That said, it's always a surprise. If you say Don Fehr was infected, or Joe Jones was infected, or Graeme was infected, we say "oh, wow, I wouldn't have expected that from him," or "what do we do?" You do the standard stuff you do in every infectious-disease situation. You backtrack for context. And you go see who could possibly have been infected, and you figure out where it came from, and you figure out who's been exposed. And the doctors and the public-health officials then do the kind of work they have to do. It's basic stuff that the doctors know how to do.

GR: Around the world, you have leagues and other major events getting cancelled. But now what's happening is that a lot of cancellations are coming before the NHL next announcement. We all hope that this passes quickly, we all want to get back to normal life. And we all want to see the greatest athletes in the world back on the ice. What's your current take on the situation in regards to returning or not returning?

DF: When I asked my dad about the biggest thing he remembered about his World War II service, he would say 'everybody tells you to hurry up, and then you get the line and then you wait.' And that's more or less what we're doing. We're getting prepared as best we can for any eventuality that that can come. We hope we'll be able to resume. We hope that with the NHL, we will have the flexibility to take advantage of an opportunity if and when it arises before next September or October. And then to finish the season, in whatever fashion makes the most sense.

But we can't do that now. We're waiting until things become more clear…It's at least conceivable that we could start something May 15 or June 10, or some other date, and play it out. So that's what we have to do wait to see. We have to determine what is going to be possible for us to do and then see if it makes sense.

GR: The 2022 Winter Olympics in China are a way down the road, but do you think there are any players that might be thinking that they don't want to travel to the other side of the world? They're more cognizant of the risks of travelling than before. Is there any thought about the Olympics 2022? And maybe we think about whether we go or not or put in different protocols to ensure our safety?

DF: I think it goes without saying that players and everybody else will have thoughts about how much the world has changed or if they're really certain that this makes sense to do this for health and safety reasons. The statistics will, at some point, indicate that the risks have diminished to an extent that it becomes feasible again – but, of course, people are going to think about it. That's human nature across the board. In terms of what the NHL might do, in terms of games outside of North America, that will have to be determined based on what the facts are. My assumption is that if and when – and hopefully soon – we get back to the point where the borders are opening and you can have international travel, those kinds of concerns that we're talking about will have been diminished to an extent that they won't be serious. If that is not the case, people are going to weigh and measure those concerns very strongly.

GR: From your position of experience dealing with players from multiple sports and from different countries –what is the message you want all the professional athletes out there to hear coming out of Don Fehr?

DF: Professional athletes, particularly in the team sports, and in my experience, this is true regardless of the sport, regardless of the culture, is that they have a unique position. I don't mean unique in terms of financial opportunities or publicity or playing fame or anything like that. I mean unique in terms of the role that they can play in a society.

Throughout my career, I've been struck by the following: a city can be a mess. But if a team gets to the championship game, whether it's the World Series or the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl, whatever it is, at that point, everybody in the locale sort of comes together. And they either celebrate together or they commiserate together, depending on what the result is. And when we can begin to go back to normal, I think it can be a signal that things are returning to normal, and we can lead a little bit in that regard. But we have to do so keeping in mind that what's really important here are the public-health issues, that those are paramount. They're more important than all the rest of the things we are talking about put together.

One of the things I've been struck with since this happened here is how over thoughtful and deliberate players are understanding that we want to make sure to the greatest extent we can that the health of everybody in the game, everybody that works with the game, and all the fans is at the top of our mind.

GR: Everything we've talked about is about everybody else. The last question I have for you is how are you doing? How's your family doing? You lead many hundreds of athletes, you're a leader on the global stage, but in your own home, you're the head of the household. How are things at home?

DF: Oh, I wouldn't suggest at home that I was the head of the household. That might provoke a disagreement. (laughs) We're OK. We're OK. We're spread out everywhere in terms of our immediate family. And everybody's doing the best we can and so far everybody's healthy. And getting through it. And, hopefully, that will remain.

Parts of this Q&A have been edited for clarity.

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