The NHLPA’s Don Fehr on the Olympics, bubble life, coronavirus testing and more


Last Friday, the NHL’s owners and the players approved a new collective bargaining agreement as well as the league’s return-to-play plan to finish out the 2019-20 season in two bubbles this summer. It’s six seasons of labor peace for a sport that hasn’t seen much of it over the last 30 years.

The bubbles exist for the same reason this CBA was ratified: The coronavirus and its economic impacts changed the math and shifted the timeline in these talks.

“We viewed the task as trying to identify the difficulties caused by the pandemic, certainly the immediate ones, but looking to the future, to figure out a way to address those issues. We had to do that in a way everybody could agree with — in negotiations, great ideas aren’t worth very much if the other side doesn’t go along with it — and then to set the stage for the recovery when things begin to return to normal,” said Don Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association.

“This is probably not something that a lot of people are going to call a perfect agreement. A lot of people are going to find faults with one thing or another. That’s always the case. And I’m pretty sure there’s going to be unanticipated events and perhaps even unintended consequences. But I do think this agreement meets the challenge, and the next challenge is going to be to implement it both in the short-term and in the long-term, and there’s a lot in this agreement, I think, players can be proud of.”

We spoke with Fehr on Sunday about the CBA, a return to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026 (pending an IOC deal with the NHL), player medical privacy concerns with COVID-19 testing, what next season will look like and whether this, in fact, is his last negotiation as NHLPA chief.

ESPN: The Olympics agreement seems like a huge victory for the players because this is something they were really passionate about. Can you take us through how it came to be — how much of a priority was it, or a sticking point was it for the players to get something in writing?

Fehr: We had ongoing discussions with the NHL about the importance of the Olympics, both in terms of the players’ desire to play, what it means to them to be able to play for their country, and in our view what the marketing advantages could be. We had some ongoing discussions with IIHF and the IOC about that. We thought they’d been progressing well. The NHL wasn’t as satisfied. But as we got into this process after having missed Korea, it was basically this has to be in an agreement. And at some point, the NHL, I don’t remember exactly when, understood that that was the case.

As a matter of fact, one of the reasons the extension is four years is that it sweeps in the 2026 Olympic Games. Our initial proposal was that it only be a three-year extension. And after that point, which was some months ago, there wasn’t a lot of discussion about it. It was just sort of assumed. Bear in mind, though, that we still do have to reach agreement with the IOC and the IIHF, although in my own view, that will take some work but we should be able to get it done without major difficulty.

ESPN: The NHL had talked about the Olympics being tied to a larger international calendar of events, like the World Cup of Hockey, but there was nothing in the CBA about that. Were you surprised the Olympics got done without needing that?

Fehr: I think the answer to that is no. I was not surprised because trying to focus on the longer international calendar in the midst of COVID-19 was not a front-burner item for us, for obvious reasons. That being said, I do expect we’re going to end up with a longer international calendar. I do expect we’re going to end up with World Cups on a regular basis, and all the rest of that. It’s just not contained in writing in this agreement.

ESPN: Other pro sports leagues have talked about salary adjustments as a reaction to COVID-19 revenue losses, and NHL owners have used salary rollbacks and compliance buyouts in the past to deal with large contracts. How did you avoid a salary rollback or buyouts in this deal?

Fehr: Once it became clear that what we were looking at was not reducing the cap, it was not something that was necessary. It never came up. If somehow we had been looking at reducing the cap to $65 million, which is roughly what it would have been if we didn’t have this agreement and we were going just based on revenues, then it would have arisen. If you think about it from the owners’ standpoint, it’s [about] the total dollar cost that’s involved, which is more important than the individual player costs. And the cap goes up and down, in theory.

ESPN: What did you tell pending free agents about the flat cap next season, and maybe the following season?

Fehr: That it’s going to be tough, but if the cap had crashed to the mid-60s, it would have been a lot worse.

ESPN: Escrow is always an issue for players. You made some improvements to escrow in this agreement, including capping it, but is there a chance in the future that there could ever be a total financial restructuring? Or can players always expect to have an escrow system?

Fehr: Well, I’ve got several answers. The first one is that my brain hasn’t gone into future gear yet.

But I guess I would explain it this way. I’m going to explain it in a very neutral, sort of academic way. If management wants to negotiate with the union wages, but not individual wages — either because they don’t think it’s a good idea or they don’t think the union are going to agree to it — because normally, in a union-management contract, you have wages covered. You’re Joe Jones and you slot in this particular place, and that’s that. If they’re going to negotiate an overall wage bill — whether it’s a hard dollar amount, whether it’s a percentage of revenues, whether it’s any other number — and then you’re going to have a system which allows variance on the individual teams for their portion of that bill can be higher or lower by some degree or all the rest of it, you have to have a mechanism to balance the books, otherwise it doesn’t work.

So now let me fast forward to your question: Would you see it ever changing? I’ve been doing this, you know, forever, basically since Moses walked the Earth. I was present during the initial baseball free agency stuff. I was the lawyer in Kansas City who shepherded the free-agency cases through the courts. There weren’t any free markets in baseball back then, it was a completely closed market. It wasn’t a cap, they just had the old fashioned reserve system. And that changed. And there had been periodic fights in baseball about that, and there are rumors there’s going to be another one coming up in the next negotiation [in MLB] in a year and a half. Every league and every negotiation is different based on the time, the circumstances, the dynamic in and all the rest. So, I don’t ever say “never” about anything. I think it’s possible. Is it likely? I think that’ll depend on what the economics are and the mood of the players.

Let me throw one other thing at you; this is important, too. And that is the single biggest determinant of the player salaries is not the system. It’s not whether you have a salary cap at 50 percent [of hockey-related revenue] or you don’t. It’s what the revenue number is. That’s significantly more important than the percentage.

ESPN: What was the players’ ultimate input on return-to-play protocols? In particular, on the selection of Toronto and Edmonton as the hub cities? Was it one-sided? Collaborative?

Fehr: It was collaborative. [Pauses] I hate that word, because it doesn’t capture the process very well. There was a professional working relationship that included players and club officials. It included highly respected physicians on both sides. It included ongoing discussions with local health authorities. The reason you wait to make decisions is partially because the speed of events was so fast that it was hard to be confident about the choices you make in March for what you were going to do in the middle of July or August. It wasn’t easy.

Was there any hostility? I guess the best I can tell you is that the choices weren’t easy and when to make them wasn’t easy, but there wasn’t any discord in the process of doing it. We just talked it through. This is where we go to. There wasn’t much disagreement about it.

ESPN: How will the beginning of next season be determined? Will the NHLPA have to agree upon it, and negotiate health and safety protocols?

Fehr: First, we know we’re going to start late. The odds on that are overwhelming. We still think we can get a full season in if we do some manipulations with what the schedule would otherwise be without going too far ahead of that. And that’s certainly the goal.

Secondly, the precise dating on it and the rest of it is yet to be determined. Third, there will very likely have to be health and safety protocols put in place because we hope we are going to be back to playing out of the home arenas. So the answer to that, yes. Those have yet to be negotiated. I am assuming that that’s going to be easier to do than it was the first time, because we now have prototypes in place.

ESPN: What would you say to those who think positive tests for players should be disclosed like any other injury or illness? Or that since these names might come out anyway, that not releasing them puts teammates or teams in a bad spot?

Fehr: Essentially in this country, what we believe in is that certain medical things are private unless somebody chooses to make them public. That’s difficult to maintain in an industry like ours, but you do the best you can across the board. Somebody saying they have the right to know … legally, they probably don’t.

For example, in your job, suppose we’re back in the old-fashioned newspaper days. You’re at the city desk with 77 other people in the room with typewriters, and you had to leave and do something for a while. People didn’t have a right to anything except that you were gone. They probably know you were gone for a medical reason, but whether it was cancer or a drug rehab or someone in your family was sick, it was none of their business unless you told them. Now, if you had a communicable disease, they would have contact traced everyone you were in contact with.

ESPN: With due respect, no one is betting on my performance at the typewriter. There will be wagering on NHL playoff games, which is something the league has encouraged. There’s a perception that a concussion or a knee injury is one thing, but a disease where the rest of the team can be infected is on a different level.

Fehr: We’ll have to face that when we come to it. But if the people who are betting on games think the information is insufficient to make a bet, they shouldn’t bet.

ESPN: How confident are you that players are going to be satisfied with the experience in the bubble, and we’re not going to see reports of less-than-promised conditions regarding food or accommodation that we’ve seen with some other leagues?

Fehr: Well, I think the fact that the NBA photos came out will help prevent that. The proof will be in the pudding when we get there. But I’m reasonably satisfied we’ll be able to do that. We’ve been talking from the beginning about creating bubble atmospheres and bringing in what somebody — maybe Steve Mayer at the NHL — called pop-up restaurants from people that really know what they’re doing.

I’m not terribly concerned about that. In these circumstances, you do the best you can. But I’m certainly hopeful that that will not be an issue. If it is an issue, you’ll hear about it more than once.

ESPN: We asked Gary Bettman this on Saturday, so we’ll ask you: Is there a threshold of positive tests in return to play that you think would necessitate a reconsideration of it?

Fehr: Yes, when my doctors tell me that it’s something that we have to think about, and that something has happened that they think is severe enough that it raises that issue. That’s how we’re going to handle it. Look, neither Gary nor I have the kind of medical or public health training that’s necessary to make those kinds of judgements. We have to rely on the experts to tell us what to do. The NHL has its own doctors. We have Dr. John Rizos [NHLPA medical consultant], who’s been with us for years. We have Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, who’s about as good as they come. We’re going to rely on them to tell us what to do.

ESPN: Finally, we now have labor peace for the next six seasons. Was this your last rodeo? Or do you think you’ll be at the negotiating table again for the next CBA?

Fehr: Do they have a fountain of youth drug yet? [Laughs] The answer is I don’t know. I’ll be 72 on July 18. As we go through this, I’m going to have to figure out what makes sense. I expect to be around for a while.

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