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Donald Fehr is leaving as the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. (Gary He/AP)
Donald Fehr is leaving as the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. (Gary He/AP)

David Shoalts

Time is now for Fehr to decide on taking NHLPA job Add to ...

The NHL Players' Association and Donald Fehr need to make a decision quickly about something vital to its future, and we're not talking about the head-shots controversy.

Fehr needs to decide whether he is interested in becoming the union's next executive director. If so, and he will surely be quizzed about it at a meeting of player agents in Toronto today, then Fehr must immediately resign his position as adviser to two NHLPA committees, one that is supposed to be in the final stages of drafting a new constitution, and one that is a search committee for an executive director.

Remaining in those positions and being a candidate for the job is a conflict of interest, one so obvious it does not need to be spelled out here. Fehr has to make a decision quickly because the union desperately needs to get on with choosing a new leader to replace Paul Kelly, who was fired almost eight months ago.

In that time, the union imploded into an object of ridicule and contempt. Things are so bad, the NHL is openly dismissive of the players, shown by the league's claim it does not need the approval of the five players on the competition committee to immediately bring in a new rule against head shots.

The leadership issue also became more urgent this week when what has been whispered for months broke into the open - a growing group of players and agents are pushing to short-circuit the hiring process and offer the job to Fehr. The New York Post reported that Brian Rafalski, one of the members of the search committee, made this proposal to the 30 NHLPA player representatives.

No one can argue that Fehr, 61, is not qualified for the job. In his 26 years as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Fehr was a feared, uncompromising union leader who scored many gains for the players. As one agent said the other day, "the NHLPA would be lucky to have him."

But that is not the problem. The problem is the NHLPA went from getting waxed by the NHL owners in the 2004-05 lockout to two huge fiascos in the hiring of Ted Saskin and the firing of Kelly, where proper procedures were ignored at best.

It cannot afford the perception that once again there is no transparency in a major decision, even if the candidate is above reproach.

There are other qualified candidates out there. David Feher, a New York lawyer with experience in negotiating labour agreements and other deals for the NFL Players' Association and other sports unions, officially applied for the job. Richard Berthelsen, the general counsel for the NFLPA, is said to be interested.

However, at least some of those who are pushing Fehr for the job believe his hiring would solve problems on several fronts. People like Chris Chelios and Ian Penny, who played prominent roles in the Saskin and Kelly saga, would be unlikely to challenge Fehr. And he would be a formidable opponent for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners in negotiations for a new collective agreement when the current one is expected to run out in 2012.

There is the question of how long Fehr would be committed to the job. He stepped down from the baseball union last year in order to slow down and travel with his wife.

But one scenario being thrown around is that Fehr would agree to be the boss through the next labour negotiations and the length of the resulting agreement, which could be as short as three years and as long as five. At the same time, he would take office along with his own hand-picked successor.

Fehr would move into an advisory role when the time came and his successor would presumably make a seamless transition to leader, just as Michael Weiner did in the baseball union.

The players need to get moving, though. At this point there is a question of whether the search committee has even been shown the applications received. If so, the decision could drag on through the summer, when communication between player reps and their teammates is difficult.

The union maintains the search committee cannot move until the constitution is in place. Fehr is expected to give the agents an update on the status of the constitution at today's meeting.

No one expects Fehr to enlighten anyone about his intentions regarding the executive director's job, but the union's way would be a lot clearer if he does.

 

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