Donald Fehr could become the first union leader to be involved in lockouts in two pro sports.
It is not a distinction coveted by Fehr, executive director of the NHL Players Association and former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
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When Fehr was asked whether a lockout by the NHL could somehow give his union an advantage, he replied: "Preposterous.'' The league is set to impose the lockout Saturday at midnight.
No negotiations were held Friday. Should the lockout occur, it would be the league's third since 1994. Fehr was no stranger to work stoppages during his 24 years with the baseball players; there were two strikes and one lockout. He retired from that job in 2009 and initially started as a consultant to the hockey players before becoming their executive director in December 2010.
Fehr said he did not expect to take a leadership role in the hockey union. "No, I did not get the itch,'' he said. "What happened was I got to know the guys and I liked them. They asked me to help them out, negotiate a contract, and I wanted to do it. To a man, they appear to be class acts. They are bright, attentive and responsible. They are interested. They understand it is their own future and they are willing to participate.
"I hope I can help. That's why I wanted to do it. I didn't get the itch to go back to work. I got the itch to help these guys. I enjoy working with the players immensely, the nuts and bolts of trying to get an agreement and worrying about the legal issues and trying to frame proposals and the rest of it. It's interesting, it's creative, but it's work. The joy here is working with the guys.''
Gene Orza, who worked closely with Fehr during their tenure with the MLBPA, said Fehr's return isn't analogous to a former athlete looking to get back in the game. "I think it's more simple and more mundane than that,'' he said. "Don was trying to help them find someone. They started thinking maybe he was the best man for the job and he said, 'I'll try it for a while.' "
This is no retirement job for Fehr, 64. Both sides are dug in, with ownership looking for concessions from an expiring contract that gave the players 57 percent of hockey-related revenue. The owners propose a cutback to 46 percent. The players want a guaranteed $1.8 billion, which is what they received in the 2011-12 season. Other issues remain, but revenue-sharing is the key to an accord.
"What's on the table now appears to say we have to have the salary concessions all over again,'' Fehr said. "Plus, we have to go in the owners' direction on all the players' contracting issues and undo that portion of the last agreement. Less money, fewer rights. I think everybody understands why the owners would like that. Every employer would like that. I have a more difficult time understanding why anybody would expect the players to [accept] it.''
Fehr is facing off with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who seems steadfast in his desire to deliver an agreement that he believes fits this economic environment. How will it turn out?
"I don't have a gut on this,'' Fehr said. "I don't know the people well enough on the other side. I hope we can solve it in the next couple of days, and if we can't, I hope we can solve it very quickly thereafter.''