Donald Fehr made his name in baseball. He negotiated five collective agreements, successfully sued the owners three times for collusion and had the unwavering support of his players through good times and bad including three work stoppages. It's a record the NHLPA couldn't resist despite his lack of experience in hockey.
"He's a quick study," said Brian Rafalski. "He's a very brilliant man. He's able to pick things up quickly. He may not understand the intricacies of the game, but this is more of the business side."
The NHLPA has had anything but a strong front since it crumbled during the lockout. Fehr is their fifth boss in the last six years. Bob Goodenow was let go in 2005. Ted Saskin was shown the door in 2007. Paul Kelly was fired in 2009 when the board didn't think he had the support of the players. Interim director Ian Penny was let go after Kelly.
The union was divided; it turned to Fehr for guidance. Then asked the 62-year-old to put off retirement and lead them into the next round of collective bargaining in 2012.
"There is a dysfunction within that constituency that has to be healed and I think Don is the individual who is most likely to be able to get the entire constituency to coalesce behind him," explained NHL player agent Don Blaizley.
So how did Fehr do it in baseball? Those who know him say the players supported him because he never forgot he answered to them.
"He knew who the boss was. The boss was the players. He knew who he represented," stated Toronto Blue Jays President Paul Beeston. "I think the key to him was one of communication. Don was a great communicator and at the very end of the day I think Don's strength was his ability to make sure that everybody understood what the issues were."
But where Fehr really earned his credibility was at the bargaining table.
"Just a tiger of a negotiator. He never let the players have any feeling that we need to give anything up" said former Blue Jays and Montreal Expos team player rep Darrin Fletcher. "He was a guy that you wouldn't want to sit across the table with and try to hash out some things because he was going to get what he wanted.
Back in the mid-1990's baseball was trying to prop up struggling markets, but Fehr has an unshakeable belief in survival of the fittest. Now that hockey's his game, that tough position could be hard news in places where hockey is a hard sell such as Phoenix, Nashville, South Florida and Atlanta, and give hope to relocation hungry markets like Quebec City and Winnipeg.
"That was his ideology in the whole thing. We are not going to lower the bar to let the weaker franchises decide what was going on," remarked Fletcher. "Our position back then was that if you can't survive then you move on or build a nice stadium and do some things to try to keep your spot going."
The current agreement between hockey players and owners expires after the 2011-2012 season. So does a new union head with a free market ideology and tough negotiating history mean a nasty showdown is coming with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman?
"I think if they work at it, it can be a good relationship. They don't have to worry about their reputation. I think what they have to worry about is getting the job done," said Beeston.
"He is a guy who keeps his eye on the ball and it's about the issues. It's not about the personalities," stated Blaizley. "I'm let to believe he's a very tough minded, stubborn guy that believes strongly in things. I don't mean to be diminishing those things, but it's coupled with this clinical detached intellect that works."
"Obviously we can't shut the game down, but who knows. We're not the only person with that decision. It's a decision that comes from two sides, it's not one side or the other, but it's definitely a possibility." admitted Rafalski.