Don Fehr didn’t attend to his college graduation.
The shootings at Kent State – where Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on students peacefully protesting the Vietnam War – happened about a week before he was scheduled to receive his degree from Indiana University in the spring of 1970.
“I’m a child of the sixties,” said Fehr, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association. “I am a child of the civil-rights movement. I am a child of the Vietnam War protests.”
The current demonstrations across the United States and around the world against police brutality after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis officer put a knee on his throat for nearly nine minutes, echo those turbulent times.
“These are issues which have always been important and fundamental and around which you need to make progress,” Fehr continued in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. “The hope is that, in one fashion or another, the current state of events will result in that kind of progress and meaningful progress being made.”
Historically not ones to speak up on any issue – let alone racism or social justice – a number of NHL players have added their voices to the call for change.
More than 100 have posted to social media about the protests, including Evander Kane and P.K. Subban, who are Black, and some of the game’s other big names, such as Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who are white. Some, such as Blake Wheeler and Braden Holtby, have conducted heart-felt interviews, while Zdeno Chara and Tyler Seguin joined peaceful marches.
Fehr, who turns 72 next month, said it’s up to individuals to decide what to post, share or contribute. But he’s encouraged by what he’s seen.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” he said. “They understand it’s an important moment. They understand what the issues are, at least in the grand scope. And they’re making their voice heard. Not everybody, but quite a lot.
“And that’s to their credit.”
With the crucial caveat that the NHL resuming its season ranks far down the list of issues in a world first brought to a halt by the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and now gripped by mass protests demanding change, Fehr remains cautiously optimistic the league will be able to complete the 2019-20 campaign.
The NHL is set to begin Phase 2 of its overarching return-to-play protocol Monday, when team facilities will be allowed to open and players can skate and work out in small, voluntary groups – while observing a laundry list of strict health and safety guidelines.
The league and NHLPA, which also need to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement or an extension to the current deal before September, 2022, hope to then open training camps sometime after July 10, which would be Phase 3, before resuming the season with Phase 4 later that month or in early August.
The NHL has unveiled a 24-team format that would likely see the Stanley Cup awarded in the fall, but everything from testing to safety to where the games will be played still has to be negotiated.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Fehr said. “The Phase 3 and 4 protocols, like Phase 2, are detail-intensive, but they also involve more people in the same area more frequently, so you have to pay a lot more attention.
“We both have public-health doctors and in our own doctors on staff, and they’re gonna tell us when we go astray.”
Fehr said his members, who remain mostly scattered across North America and Europe since the season was paused March 12, have plenty of questions.
“They want to make sure they understand what the plan is and why it is that way,” he said. “They want assurance that not only have the maximum efforts been made to keep them safe, but they don’t want to inadvertently take something back to their families.
“And they want to make sure they have enough time to get back, to train, to get ready so that when the game starts, leading to the eventual awarding of the Cup, that there’ll be real games that will be as intense as you would like.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has described the relationship between the league and players during the pandemic as “collaborative” on more than one occasion, but Fehr prefers not to use that adjective.
“What I can say is this: We’re faced with a common problem, which arose entirely outside the ordinary labour-management relationship, and we can’t resolve this by ourselves,” he said. “There are things we don’t know, and there are things we can’t know about the future.”
The main unknown being whether or not government and health officials will even allow hockey to resume this summer under the NHL’s plan to have teams play in two as-yet-unnamed hub cities without fans.
“There is ... a common recognition we’re dealing with something entirely out of the ordinary, and we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it,” Fehr said. “It’s not something we caused. It’s not something that the NHL caused. It’s not something which began as a fight over economics or likely will end there, although the adverse economic consequences of the pandemic are clearly going to have to be addressed.”
And those could be massive.
“If we can’t complete this season, there’s going to be a big revenue hit,” Fehr said. “It would not be good at all, but the health and safety of everybody concerned ... is priority one, two, and three, and everything else follows that.
“Whatever it turns out to be – a potential loss this year, a potential loss next year, if for some reason we can’t play before full arenas – we just have to deal with it.
“And it ain’t gonna be pretty.”