TORONTO -- Donald Fehr, the tough-as-nails, former Major League Baseball union chief, couldn't help but break the ice with a bunch of hockey reporters on Thursday afternoon.
"This is actually not my first interview," Fehr said after addressing National Hockey League player agents at their annual meeting, getting a few laughs. "I have done some of these before."
And though Fehr held court for 12 minutes a few floors below street level in a downtown Toronto hotel, there was only one question that really mattered: Is he interested in becoming the next executive director of the NHL Players' Association?
"I have been asked that question a lot," Fehr said. "When this organization went through the process it did in September and October, I was asked by some of the players if I could help them out. I agreed to do that, and that is basically about all I can say about it."
But if there is anyone who can lead the NHLPA out of the wilderness, a situation the players brought about themselves, it's Fehr. Since the fall, he has been working with the NHLPA in a consulting role as it rewrites its constitution, a document that should be finalized this summer.
The job with the NHLPA comes after Fehr mastered a reputation as a hard negotiator when he was in charge of the MLB Players' Association for 26 years, a tenure that included a strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series, but also an increase in average salaries to $3.2-million US last season from $289,000 US in Fehr's first year in office. And, of course, there's no salary cap in baseball.
Fehr was asked by the agents if he wants to be the next union head for the NHLPA, but wouldn't commit. The search for a union boss should yield a result in the coming months, but it's clear Fehr has support among agents now.
"He has so much experience for us to learn from," J.P. Barry of CAA Sports said. "He has 25 years of protecting the players in baseball, and there are a lot of analogies between hockey and baseball."
Said Pat Morris of Newport Sports Management: "You can't ignore his credentials and at the same time the players certainly would be impressed. He left a very good job (with the MLB players' union). Is that a signal he would not take a challenging job? That's up to him."
The 61-year-old Fehr, with his head buried in all things baseball for the past quarter of a century, acknowledged he doesn't know much about hockey. One of his initial experiences with the NHL was attending a game at the old Montreal Forum while he was a college student, but since has watched games sporadically.
Fehr wanted to slow down after announcing his resignation from baseball last year, but he would have to get up to speed on NHL matters fast if he became the union head.
The collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA ends in 2011, but the players can extend it for one year.
"They have a bit of a leadership vacuum at the moment at the top," Fehr said. "Are there some challenges ahead? Sure there are. Is there a lot of work to do? Sure there is. Is there a lot of room for optimism? I think so."