TORONTO - Donald Fehr has never been more excited about the start of a NHL season.
The executive director of the NHL Players' Association came to hockey a little later in life and finally feels as though he knows the sport well enough to truly enjoy it. Even more importantly, he's also looking forward to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the league — the main task he was hired to perform.
Those discussions are scheduled to begin shortly after the all-star break at the end of January.
"That'll give us several months to conduct the negotiations," Fehr said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "I would like to believe we won't need that long, but that much time will be available."
Unlike many fretful fans who are worried about a repeat of the 2004-05 lockout, Fehr doesn't see any reason for talks to go right up until the expiry of the current CBA on Sept. 15, 2012 — let alone beyond it.
Much of the last year has been devoted to educating himself on the issues, determining what the players want and helping rebuild the union's staff. In the process, Fehr made an interesting discovery that seems to suggest the path to the next CBA might not be as acriminious as the last one.
"Bargaining is usually difficult — that's not a prediction and it's not a claim that the people on the other side are difficult people, it's just that the nature of union-management relationships mean that they tend to be adversarial," he said. "On the other hand, I become more persuaded over time that this particular sport has a lot of opportunities. (There's no reason) we can't find a way jointly to try and explore them and to try and take advantage over the next several years.
"If I can be helpful in trying to do that and moving this sport to a level that it hasn't been at before ... that's something that would give me a lot of satisfaction I think."
During his 26 years in charge of the baseball union, Fehr garnered a reputation for being a fierce negotiator. He oversaw five labour contracts for the players and was in charge during a seven-plus month strike in 1994-95 that forced the cancellation of the World Series.
Since joining the NHLPA — first as a special assistant, then as executive director in September 2010 — he's made a concerted effort to get out and meet as many people involved in the sport as possible. Most recently, he's been in Europe spending time with the teams opening the season there and will later continue his fall tour with stops around North America.
Fehr also conducted about a dozen sessions with players in various locations over the summer, where he set about educating them on what to expect with the upcoming negotiations.
"Those meetings were in large part about the process of collective bargaining," said Fehr. "What the role of the staff is, what the far more important role of the players are, how you organize that, how you determine upon which issues to proceed, what the time schedules might be and all of that kind of thing. When you're engaged in collective bargaining in a union-management atmosphere, there's a process you have to go through.
"And it's not something that you know intuitively, you have to learn it."
In Fehr's experience, each negotiation plays out in its own unique way and he can't yet predict how it'll go when he sits across the table from Bettman and the NHL. But he remains confident that there are plenty of areas for the business to grow — something which would clearly benefit both sides.
"I think so," he said. "We'll find out as we get into it whether I'm looking at it correctly."
Among the other topics Fehr touched on during a wide-ranging interview:
— On NHL discipline, which currently sees league vice-president Brendan Shanahan determine suspensions and commissioner Gary Bettman handle appeals: "The process that we have for handling disciplinary cases is one in which neither the players, nor the union as their representative, have any meaningful role to play. There's no neutral (body), there's no appeal and that's something obviously which we've been talking to players about."
— On Shanahan releasing videos to explain each suspension this season: "I hope it's going to be helpful. ... I think everybody will have to make their own judgments as things play out as to whether or not that makes things clearer or it doesn't make things clearer, that it makes things more predictable or it doesn't make things more predictable. But it's too soon to make that judgment."
— On looking for ways to improve assistance programs following the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak this summer: "We have been talking about that with (players), yes, and letting them know some of the things that we may be doing. Obviously, these were tragic events."
It's worth remembering how much change the NHLPA has gone through since the current CBA was signed in 2005. Former executive director Bob Goodenow stepped down shortly after the deal was reached and Ted Saskin, Paul Kelly and Ian Penny, on an interim basis, each took a turn running the union in the meantime.
Fehr has brought a tremendous amount of stability to the organization in a short period of time and is eager to reward the players for putting their faith in him.
"The players didn't have a particularly good or pleasant experience in the last round of negotiations," he said. "Obviously, they remember that. And what I look forward to is trying to be of assistance in negotiating a new CBA, which is one that the players are satisfied with, are happy with and represents some real achievements on their behalf.
"If I can help them accomplish that, that'll make me feel pretty good too."