Donald Fehr arrived as executive director of the NHL Players Association two years ago with a well-earned reputation as someone who wasn't going to blink at the bargaining table.
With the NHL lockout entering its 108th day and talks expected to continue Tuesday in hopes of salvaging even a partial season, that hasn't changed.
Fehr earned his reputation over more than two decades representing athletes in baseball. And while a Major League Baseball spokesman said no one in baseball's front office would discuss Fehr's style or tactics, former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent didn't hesitate to define Fehr as a man of ability and integrity with a politically framed sense of purpose.
"He's very organized, very smart, very disciplined and very strategic," Vincent, 74, said from his home in Florida. "And he's devoted to the cause."
That cause, Vincent added, isn't just a matter of economics.
"He is a man of the left politically and temperamentally," said Vincent, baseball's commissioner from 1989 to 1992 -- a period that included a 32-day lockout in 1990. "He's very much convinced there is moral right on the side of the working player and that there are moral defects, if you will, on the side of the owners, the capitalists in baseball or hockey."
Attempts to reach Fehr were unsuccessful.
Fans generally blamed Fehr for the baseball strike that led to cancellation of the 1994 World Series. But ultimately the courts upheld the union's position that collusion among owners illegally kept salaries down. And baseball has had 18 years of labor peace with franchise values skyrocketing since a new economic system was put in place.
In hockey's ongoing labor impasse, Fehr still has his critics, though the bulk of the finger-pointing is directed at NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. This NHL lockout is his third, after all, and the 2,323 games canceled on his watch are more than the 1,442 lost by baseball, football and basketball combined.
In recruiting Fehr, hockey players say they anticipated another showdown with owners when their latest labor pact expired in September.
"We knew this wasn't going to be a pretty situation from the start," Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart said. "We knew what the owners were going to do, and it was just a matter of us trying to figure out what our game plan was."
Looking to rebuild their splintered union after the 2004-05 lockout, players first turned to Fehr as a consultant after he retired from his baseball job in 2009. Later, they asked him to be executive director.
"I think that was somebody that we needed as a group at that time, kind of having lost a bit of direction," said Stuart, who was with the Detroit Red Wings at the time. "We needed some stability and someone who knew what was going to be involved in the upcoming years -- and right now."
Hockey players also liked what they heard from their baseball counterparts.
"Every MLB guy I've talked to pumps his tires and says you're in great hands," Sharks forward Ryane Clowe said.
At times, the NHL front office has tried to portray Fehr as out of touch with his union's membership. Stuart and others say that has never been the case, and last week's reported 706-22 vote by players to take the first legal step toward dissolving the union -- a legal strategy recommended by Fehr -- would seem to attest to that.
"From the standpoint of the players," Stuart said even before the vote, "we couldn't have gotten -- in our opinion -- a better guy who knew what he was doing, who was going to be on our side and our side only, yet still looking out for the game."
That last point is one that Vincent might take issue with.
"He used to say to me, 'Look, I'm not worried about baseball. That's your job. My job is to take care of my clients, my constituency. I'm trying to get everything for them I can, and you worry about the future of the game,'" the former commissioner said.
"I said, 'Don, that's so shortsighted because obviously if the game doesn't do well, neither will your players.' "
Forward Joe Pavelski, the Sharks' union representative, rejected the idea that Fehr is working against hockey's overall interests.
"It's pretty clear he definitely doesn't want to ruin the game," he said. "He still wants what's best for the game and what's best for the players."
Whatever fault Vincent might find with Fehr, the former commissioner described their dealings as "first-rate" and said it's the NHL owners who have to come to their senses at this point, as baseball owners finally did.
"The insight that everybody comes to ultimately is that without the players there is no game," Vincent said. "And you can fight with them only so long because you can't get along without them. If you ever want to have a game and you're an owner, you have to give them their way."
His final advice to Fehr's current opponents: "Make the best deal you can, but don't let it go on very much longer. The hemorrhaging is very serious."
For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks.
Players make counteroffer as NHL talks resume. Page 2