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David Shoalts

Perhaps an outsider is what NHLPA needs Add to ...

These are early days in finding a successor to Paul Kelly as executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association - the various warring factions still have the knives out - but at least one intriguing candidate has emerged in sports lawyer David Feher.

With yesterday's news that the 30-player representatives of the NHLPA finally managed to scrape together a resolution to investigate themselves, it appears the way to finding a successor to Kelly has also opened. Those close to the union say there is a good chance that, in addition to the review committee, which will direct the investigation of the NHLPA's practices and the firing of Kelly, a search committee will be struck to find a new executive director.

At this point, anyone with a passing knowledge of the infighting and apathy that plagues the players' union has to wonder why any sane person with the proper qualifications would want the job. Oddly enough, there is more than one.

Former New York Rangers goaltender Mike Richter has indicated he would consider the job.

Feher, 51, who has been involved in sports labour law for more than 20 years, has already told the NHLPA he wants the job.

The intriguing thing about Feher's interest is that he does not have any ties to any of the groups slagging each other in the NHLPA fight. While the biggest problem for the NHLPA is player apathy, another is that the last two executive directors, Kelly and Ted Saskin were viewed by some, rightly or wrongly, as being part of this or that clique.

Feher also has an impressive résumé, which includes involvement as outside counsel for the National Football League Players Association, the National Basketball Players Association, women's tennis players and the defunct Arena Football League's players' union. He had a hand in negotiating eight collective agreements with the NBA and the NFL. He is also a partner with Jeffrey Kessler in the New York law firm Dewey LaBoeuf and worked with Kessler, who gained fame in many high-profile sports law cases involving free agency and antitrust.

But what may make Feher most suitable for the job is something else - his ability to mend fences. While it is difficult to imagine a union more fractured than the NHLPA, Feher helped repair two situations that were as bad or worse. He played a major role in bringing the AFL players back together in one union in 2000 after two competing unions split the players. And he helped bring peace to the NBA players in 1995 after two union bosses were bounced and a group of star players sued to decertify the union.

"He is a superlative lawyer," Kessler said yesterday, adding that, "Of course, I'm biased because he's my friend. But he has unique experience in terms of collective bargaining in sports, understanding the economics of sports and he's really been at the front of a lot of issues that confronted sports unions."

Some of Feher's adversaries speak well of him, although none would speak on the record. One man who crossed swords with Feher many times paid him the ultimate lawyer's compliment: "He knows his stuff."

If there is a concern, it would be that Feher may be well-versed in collective bargaining but not in the nuts-and-bolts business of running a union. Or that making his desire for the job public would cause suspicion.

"No, I don't think he's crazy [for wanting the job]" Kessler said. "His history is working on the union side where there was not a lot of unanimity and he had to build a consensus."

The selection of the next executive director is the most important decision to face the NHLPA in decades. While the union members fight among themselves, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners are looking on with glee.

Management will be coming hard for concessions in the next collective agreement and the hardliners will be out for blood if they sense any weakness. Guaranteed contracts, for example, which punish teams for years against the salary cap if the general manager makes a mistake, could be in jeopardy.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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