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So it looks as if Donald Fehr is going to become executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association after all.

What a surprise. After months of flirting with the organization and giving off mixed signals - he wanted the job, he didn't want it; he was prepared to act as an adviser, but wanted no part of the daily grind after retiring as boss of the Major League Baseball Players' Association - here he comes, about to run the most dysfunctional body in professional sport, assuming the players ratify his appointment in the fall.

Traditionally, there has been a lemming-like quality to NHL players when it came to their union. With a handful of exceptions such as Chris Chelios, Dwayne Roloson and Robyn Regehr, they were mostly a docile bunch, easily led, not much given to attend summer meetings or educate themselves on the issues they faced when it came to collective bargaining.

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The perfect example is how the escrow process evolved in the current collective agreement, a relatively straightforward mechanism designed to divide the overall revenue pie two ways - 57 per cent for the players, the rest for the owners. As revenues fluctuated, escrow kept the percentages in line.

At different times during the current agreement, that has meant a little postseason bonus for players. At other times, it has involved a give-back to the owners.

Naturally, in the years when a little extra came their way, the players were happy. In the years when they had to return money to the owners, there were yelps of protest. It was shocking to see how few actually understood how the agreement worked, and its implications on the dollars in their pockets.

So now two seasons away from another possible work stoppage, it will be the hawkish Fehr in control, his mandate to guide the organization through the next round of labour negotiations, which will follow hard on the heels of contract talks in professional football and basketball as well.

The professional sports landscape, as we now know it, could grind to a halt on multiple fronts within the next couple of years, as owners and players debate how to distribute the ever increasing spoils associated with their respective industries.

Fehr, 61, is known as a confrontational hard-liner, someone whose time at the helm of the baseball union coincided with its shameful steroid era. He oversaw five contract negotiations with the owners and took the players out on strike once in the mid-1990s for any meaningful period of time.

Armageddon would seem to be just around the corner, judging by the message boards Thursday, although NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.

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"Look, I'm not looking forward to Armageddon, that's for sure," Daly said. "The sport will be well served by dealing with its issues in a reasonable, insightful way, through the negotiation process, and that's what we're looking to do."

For the NHLPA, the primary first step is adding a level of professionalism to a union that has had three leadership changes since Bob Goodenow's resignation in the aftermath of the 2004-05 lockout. It was Ted Saskin for a short time, then Paul Kelly and now Fehr.

In that time, the organization was paralyzed by an unworkable constitution that played a large part in Kelly's ouster. The rewritten version needs to be a more sensible document.

Since Kelly's departure, the NHLPA has had a skeletal sort of look. Here at the World Hockey Summit, it's been represented by its business manager, Mike Ouellet.

It will be up to Fehr to add staff who will, first and foremost, begin the dialogue on a lot of areas where nothing's been done for years, including the question of Olympic participation, so near and dear to the hearts of delegates at the World Hockey Summit.

For better or for worse, Fehr's legacy will revolve around his work in Major League Baseball. No matter what happens next, his involvement in hockey will always be a postscript on his career.

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Here's hoping he treats the endeavour with a serious, sober purpose and doesn't contribute to running the sport off the cliff again. That's happened too often in the NHL's past couple of decades, recalcitrant leaders on both sides unable to negotiate fair agreements that can keep the game on the ice, growing and thriving the way it is now.

Sadly, hockey's recent history has shown that just when things are going well, owners and players find a way to mess it up. It would behoove all sides to remember the sage words of philosopher George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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