Donald Fehr, appointed Saturday as the new executive director of the NHL Players' Association, anticipates that negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement will commence no later than the spring of 2012.
Fehr, 62, addressed the matter on a conference call with reporters after earning overwhelming approval from an NHLPA membership vote. The former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association cautioned that he has not yet spoken to the NHL about opening negotiations, nor has he made a formal recommendation to the players about when talks should start.
"If I had to throw a target date out, I would probably say sometime a year from this spring," Fehr said. "Maybe a little sooner than that, but that's only a target date. Down the road a few months, I expect to have a much better idea of when it might make sense."
The current labour agreement expires on Sept. 15, 2012. NHL owners have locked out players twice in the last 16 years, including an interruption that eliminated the 2004-05 season, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Fehr was the MLBPA boss until last year, and had been helping the NHLPA as an unpaid consultant. He said players have told him that some elements of the current agreement need to be "examined."
He is not expected to serve for a long time, and reportedly had some healthy demands to accept the position. But for the instable NHLPA, players said he was the right choice for the huge job of rebuilding the union, and ushering it through the next round of CBA talks.
"Nobody in the world knows more about the labour business in sports," Boston Bruins player representative Mark Stuart told NESN. "[Fehr]did a great job in baseball and I think we're lucky to have him on our side."
Fehr took baseball players on strike in 1994, which resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. Asked about his reputation as a hawk, Fehr reminded his audience that there has been relative labour peace since the strike, and that baseball owners bargained in bad faith.
"We treat a work stoppage -- a strike -- as a last resort," he said. "It's something you consider only when you believe that all alternatives have failed. We certainly hope, and I certainly believe, that the owners will treat it as a last resort.
"So if you were to ask me: 'Do I anticipate a stoppage?' The answer is 'no.' And I certainly don't hope that we have one."
Alongside Fehr's appointment, the NHLPA also announced amendments to its constitution which seek to "add clarity to, and simplify...the association's decision-making process." The union said the amendments will allow for "more efficient and timely decision-making" and encourage "cohesion."
Fehr suggested that the amendments were key to his accepting the role as executive director, saying that the previous constitution was an "overreaction to the very real internal difficulties that the organization had suffered."
He said the amendments allow for the executive director to act like a "prime minister," so long as he has "significant majority support among the executive board and among the players." Fehr said that meant he would have to spend time with the players to make sure he was in sync with their opinions.
"Would I have taken the position without that amendment? The answer is: I don't know for sure," Fehr said. "But it would have been a vastly more difficult choice without the new constitution."
Fehr, who spent 33 years with the baseball union, said his first task was to educate himself on the CBA, the players, and the sport.
"He's not a hockey guy, but there are other qualities that he has that makes him a good choice," NHLPA constitutional committee member Dominic Moore told the St. Petersburg Times. "His reputation is that he doesn't mess around. But I don't think anybody wants to see that happen."
Fehr acknowledged that the NHLPA will have to be rebuilt after going more than 15 months without an executive director, and suffering through periods of infighting that date back to the last lockout. He also suggested that former NHL defenceman Mathieu Schneider, a member of the union's search committee that recommended Fehr be hired last September, could have a role going forward.
"Obviously, a lot of senior people were lost here, and there is going to have to be a rebuilding of the staff in a number of different areas," he said. "Over the next several weeks, I think that all of that will become apparent."