Picking up the subtleties of a new culture takes time, so no one was really surprised at the newbie question.
To lurk around an NHL dressing room is to quickly pick up one of pro hockey’s general rules of life: Guys always have to wear suits on the road.
There is no good reason for someone who has spent decades in baseball to know this, and Donald Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, evidently didn’t on his inaugural barnstorming tour of the league’s 30 dressing rooms in the fall of 2010.
“He was like, ‘Why’s everyone so formal? You guys can relax and wear jeans,’” Pittsburgh goalie Marc-André Fleury said of his first encounter with Fehr, which took place during a Penguins road swing through St. Louis.
Fleury is one of the sport’s great gigglers and found the exchange hilarious, but his enduring impression of the meeting is its content and the poise with which it was delivered.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Fleury said of Fehr in a recent interview. “He tells you what’s going on. Don’s a very smart guy.”
Perhaps the one element that could have the greatest bearing on resolving the NHL lockout is solidarity. Whichever of Fehr or NHL commissioner Gary Bettman keeps his coalition together longest is likely to end up closest to his objective.
Asked where improving union cohesion ranked on his list of priorities upon becoming the NHLPA head, Fehr said “about as high as you can get. You need a ladder to get that high.”
There are factions in any organization, but the NHLPA has a particular propensity for dissent and disharmony in high-pressure moments. It’s a past that hasn’t escaped Fehr’s notice. Indeed, he said of all the aspects an executive director needs to master, “internal politics is the one indispensable thing.”
So he has made a point of visiting teams, holding dinners, appointing divisional player representatives, and doing things like creating a software application that allows NHLPA members to receive real-time information and messages from Fehr on their phones.
He has also courted player agents, the wild cards in any contract dispute.
Fehr is a proponent of the personal approach, and said “there are still only 760 members, so you can actually see and meet and talk on the phone and e-mail and text with all of them.”
Players also say Fehr has been adept at reaching beyond cliques and including everyone in the discussions, from superstars like Sidney Crosby to journeyman free agents like Mathieu Darche, who sits on the bargaining committee.
“The one thing he stresses more than anything is having players show up, to be there at the meetings, and he likes to have them in small groups,” said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges, adding that “he keeps stressing this only works if we’re all on board and everybody keeps paying attention … he keeps everybody involved.”
Fehr has constructed what he hopes will be a lasting unity, and has done so painstakingly, racking up a hideous number of frequent flier points. He’s gone so far as to hold player information meetings in Spain and Russia to attract European members.
That’s not to say the united front won’t be sorely tested soon, when players start missing multiple paycheques.
The owners are divided by competing agendas and disparate economic conditions, but the players are also a fragile coalition of multiple income brackets and frequently diverging interests.
For example, there are players like Roman Hamrlik, the Washington Capitals’ defenceman who is the active leader in career games played, with 1,379.
Hamrlik is on board with the consensus, for now.
“I’ve been in the league almost 20 years,” Hamrlik said, “I’ve been through some difficult times … we’re 100 per cent behind him, but in 2004 we missed the whole year and I think we should learn from the mistakes. We should learn from 2004, we’re looking for a five-six year deal for the young kids, but as an older guy, I’m 38, and I’m sure there’s older players who want to play. We just want to play hockey.”
That’s a popular sentiment, but Hamrlik and the greybeards are a minority. Unlike 2004, the most influential players in the union are in their early or mid-20s. That was evident at the NHLPA’s recent show of force in New York City, where nearly 300 players showed up for a series of meetings leading up to the lockout.
One of the main tasks for Fehr is to battle the inevitable impatience his members will express, but as he has said, every negotiation has its own pace and it doesn’t pay to rush it.
“The hardest thing to do is to wait, but sometimes that’s just what you have to do,” he said.
And athletes are used to dealing with the grind of a long season, Fehr added.
You won’t find a player who is anything other than supportive of Fehr, and that doubtless has to do with the change of atmosphere at the NHLPA since the fractious days of Paul Kelly (deposed for breaking confidentiality rules, amid whispers he was too close to the owners) and Ted Saskin (Kelly’s predecessor, who was fired after spying on internal e-mails).
Fehr says he’s emphasized the need for players to feel comfortable and relaxed when it comes to discussing their future, and that’s mirrored in the fact he set out a jeans policy around the union’s headquarters, as in: wear them whenever you want.
“I’m more comfortable in jeans and sneakers,” Fehr said. “My mother always says that’s why I represent athletes.”