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Donald Fehr puts the players first, this time in hockey

Former MLB union chief is again the dour face of players not playing, as strict unionist stands by his principles while arguing economics. He appreciates NHL fan sentiment, but he won't yield to it.

December 17, 2012|By Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times
  • Donald Fehr is the executive director of the NHL players' association.
Donald Fehr is the executive director of the NHL players' association. (Chris Young / Associated…)

NEW YORK — — The files are crammed into boxes, stacks upon stacks of boxes, shoved to the side of the room. This is prime real estate, a rectangular conference room on the 25th floor of a Manhattan office building.

No one uses the room these days. This is the retirement office of Donald Fehr.

Fehr led the baseball players' union for 26 years and three work stoppages. He retired in 2009, and the union provided him with a room to write his memoirs, keep his files, conduct his business, or just come in and say hello every now and then.

Fehr was 61. He had devoted more than half his life to standing up for professional athletes, to fighting the owners that employed them.

"I knew Don was tired," said Michael Weiner, who succeeded Fehr as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn. "I also knew Don was an intellectually curious guy, and I knew it wouldn't surprise me if he found something else to do."

Fehr thought about writing that book, about teaching a class or two, about joining the ranks of arbitrators and mediators. The spotlight could shine on someone else — or so he thought, until the spotlight tapped him on the shoulder one more time.

The hockey players' union was a mess. The players hired Fehr as a consultant, then asked him to stay on as executive director. So here he is, once more the dour face of players not playing.

"I just didn't think he would take on that big a challenge," Weiner said. "He obviously is up to it. He is engaged. And the players are really fortunate."

The fans? As Fehr will remind you, he does not represent them.

Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade was just another street in the 1920s. On one corner stood a new movie theater with a name that exists to this day: the Criterion.

Fehr's grandfather owned a clothing store in the building next door. The Great Depression hit, the family lost everything, and back home to Indiana they went.

Fehr was born there, in 1948. He grew up in Kansas City, then attended Indiana University, where fraternity brothers from Chicago introduced him to hockey.

He watched the occasional NHL game on a black-and-white television, even joined a road trip or two to see the Blackhawks. Casual fan, yes. Expert, by no means.

"I certainly knew enough to compare the Canadiens to the Yankees," he said.

Fehr attended law school, aspiring to be a trial lawyer, dreading the big corporate jobs with what he called "sort of faithless institutions." He wound up at a small firm and, by chance, in a supporting role in the Andy Messersmith case that bestowed free agency upon baseball players.

Marvin Miller, the founding director of the MLBPA, was so impressed he hired Fehr as the union's in-house counsel in 1977. Fehr ascended to executive director in 1983, in an era when the end of a collective bargaining agreement invariably led to a work stoppage.

In 1985, the players went on strike, for two days. In 1990, the owners locked out the players, for 32 days. In 1994, the players went on strike in August. The players are not paid in the postseason, and Fehr bet the owners would settle rather than miss out on the playoff jackpot.

Gary DiSarcina, then the Angels' shortstop and player representative, recalled Fehr's advising the players not to hold workouts during the strike.

"Go on vacation," Fehr said, according to DiSarcina. "Go do something else. The quicker you get out of shape, the more urgency there will be. They don't want to cancel the World Series."

On Sept. 14, 1994, Commissioner Bud Selig canceled the World Series.

Selig is famously sensitive to criticism. To this day, he resents that Fehr led the players out on strike and yet he has been indelibly tagged as the only commissioner ever to call off the World Series.

Whereas Selig wears his heart on his sleeve, Fehr, in his public persona, can appear heartless.

"He is as impervious to media criticism as anyone I've ever met," said Dodgers President Stan Kasten, a friend of both Fehr and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Fehr was not standing with the fans of the great American pastime then, just as he is not standing with the fans of the great Canadian pastime now. He is standing with the players, as the head of a union, in a position in which just about all the publicity is bad publicity.

As the strike of 1994 dragged into 1995, Fehr faced the challenge of keeping hundreds of players unified.

Selig put a gag order on his owners then, just as Bettman has done now. Fehr encourages players to speak up, at the risk of a disgruntled player splintering that unity.

"It wasn't always peace and harmony," DiSarcina said. "There were players who made a good chunk of change that weren't happy with the length of the strike. Guys were losing money. In some cases, they were at the end of their careers."

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