Donald Fehr is leaving his role as the executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). Fehr might not be a household name like Commissioner Gary Bettman, but he played an integral part in the NHL’s infamous labor stoppages.
He also had a part in the 1994 Major League baseball players’ strike that caused the extremely controversial cancellation of the 1994 World Series.
Fehr’s replacement is a unique one in that it’s current United States Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. Walsh is a former union official and served in the Biden administration, which made it a political point to strengthen unions.
On the flip side, he was also involved in an almost politically and economically damaging railroad workers’ strike this past year that was diverted because of an act of Congress. Walsh’s experiences in hockey end at being a Boston Bruins season ticket holder.
Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh is the new head of the NHLPA.
Walsh’s out-of-the-box hire is said to be in response to players wanting someone with a different perspective as the head of their players union.
It’s also the second sports hire to come from former Massachusetts politicians (Walsh is Boston’s former mayor) after the NCAA made former governor Charlie Baker president. ESPN’s Greg Wyshnyski included this comment about Walsh’s hire:
"“The players did not want anybody with a history in the industry or with any preconceived notions about [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman,” said one players’ source."
Why do the players want someone who is seemingly going to do things differently than Fehr? Were they unhappy with the way Fehr had been handling things in his last few seasons?
The “preconceived notion” comment in regard to Gary Bettman struck me as odd. Do the players want to have a better relationship with the league, which is their “employer”? Did Fehr and Bettman’s relationship deteriorate to the point players feared for their contracts?
You might think being in a president’s cabinet is too good a job to give up, but when you look at their salaries, it’s easy to understand why Walsh would want the job.
According to the Boston Globe, Fehr makes over $3.5 million a year in his current role at the NHLPA. Walsh makes only $235,600 while having to worry about Congress, the courts, President Biden, etc.
Wyshnyski also included this little fun fact: Walsh is close, politically and socially, with Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who is also the chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors.
The new NHLPA head has an inside tract with one of the sport’s more powerful owners and doesn’t come to the job with a hatred of the commissioner. That already sounds like a win for the league.
Hockey fans would like to think the NHLPA would want to hire someone who would do anything to avoid those lockouts everyone hates for the good of the game and the fans. The sad fact is the union head doesn’t owe anything to the fans as much as they owe it to the players.
The fact Walsh is friends with Jacobs should be a nice bridge in finding common ground between the two parties.
The fact they hired a government official is a bit curious, though. In the NCAA’s case, they have legal and regulatory battles coming up in terms of legislation and the still uncharted world of “NIL” deals.
The NHL seemingly has no legal or governmental problem on the horizon. Also, Walsh was an American politician, and with seven teams in Canada, the league has to worry about labor laws north of the border as well.
Escrow has long been a point of contention between the players and the league. The amount of actual escrow versus returned escrow has grown in recent years to the dismay of the players.
NHL players also mostly would vote for a 5% “escalator” increase in the salary cap, at least in pre-COVID days, and those numbers don’t necessarily have a perfect relationship with actual U.S. inflation.
My first thought is perhaps the players want to mount a legal challenge against the practice the same way players challenged the NHL’s reserve clause in the 1970s.
Even though Fehr had a ton of law experience, the Secretary of Labor might have a better idea of how to go through with that and what would be needed for any potential challenge.
The Secretary of Labor would also have a better understanding of how to remedy any problems players are having in regard to record high inflation and the economic concerns that causes.
This is pure speculation on my part. Another regulatory thing we can think of that includes the NHL has been the rapid expansion of sports gambling throughout both the United States (and Canada) following the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that made it legal nationwide.
Every state is allowed to make its own laws in regard to sports betting (for example, my home state of New Jersey doesn’t allow you to bet on college games taking place in the state, but other states do allow such bets).
Could the players want a piece of the sports betting pie? The NHL strictly forbids their players, coaches, and personnel from betting on games, but if people are making a lot of money every time Sidney Crosby scores a goal, maybe the players think they deserve that.
Even if the NHL doesn’t get gaming revenue, they do have relationships with many large sports books, so that might be a topic of future discussion.
Let’s be blunt, most hockey fans don’t care about labor relations as long as games are being played. Let’s hope Walsh’s tenure brings labor peace to the sport. If it does, then it would be a great hire. Maybe he can get the President to sign a bill banning lockouts; wouldn’t that be great?