Peer-To-Peer Conversations: Donald Fehr on how the NHLPA is handling the COVID-19 pandemic

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Graeme Roustan: Don, I’d like to welcome to The Hockey News and Sports Illustrated Peer-to-Peer Conversation. Thanks for your time today.

Don Fehr: Thank you.

GR: First and foremost, you have a team at the NHLPA’s office. How are they doing? Are they at work, or working at home?

DF: Our offices in Toronto and most people live in Metropolitan Toronto. The office, at this point, is closed except for necessary people coming in to keep the servers operating and that kind of thing. All of the senior people that would be in contact with players or work with the NHL or with our licensees or anything like that are working from home. Everybody has electronic capabilities. We have either seven or eight or nine people that are at various locations in the States, too. So we’re in contact. All the players and their agents have electronic communications too. So while it’s more cumbersome, and it’s more difficult to have meetings and discussions by conference call, or email, in fact, it can get done in and we’re all adapting and just hoping it doesn’t last too long.

GR: Well, you touched on the players and the communications. The way it’s been over the past many years, with all the 31 clubs, they’re most often, especially during the season, they’re done during teleconference anyway. So the PA has experience communicating with team reps in the past. It’s worked in the past. Is it still working today?

DF: Oh, sure. It’s it’s still working. We have five former players on staff and they are in frequent communication – perhaps a better word is constant communication since this crisis started – with the guys and that means they’re in contact with player reps. Very often with senior players that have been around and have a lot of interest in how the union works, but also with the younger players, and then in addition to speaking to my executive board, which is 62 people, the player reps and the alternates.

Last week, we held team conference calls. I haven’t added up the numbers, but I’m going to say we had between 400-500 players who participated on those calls. They’re a little cumbersome, they’re difficult. The logistical problems of trying to have conversations with multiple people go up in direct proportion to the number of people on the call, but you get it done. And I must say that whenever I’ve been in a crisis – although this one is different than anyone before, of course – I’m always struck by how thoughtful and how sober and how deliberate the players are in terms of coming to grips with the issues they face and making decisions about them. And that’s certainly true here.

GR: I would imagine the 64 reps are used to teleconferences, it’s a routine thing for them. But for the players and the teams, like you said, it’s probably a little bit more difficult because most of the players on those teams aren’t really used to communicating in this digital world of large conference calls. So I thought it’s quite understandable that there would be a few hiccups in those in those calls. Is it the PA’s plan to have team calls on a frequent basis monthly, weekly? Or is there any structure to that? Or is it just as an update from time to time?

DF: At this point, it’s as needed. As we get closer to the point where hopefully we can resume my guess is those will be more frequent. But you should understand that. If we have executive board conference calls, first of all, we get frequently lots of players who aren’t technically on the executive board, which is joined. And then the former players will reach out to the rest of the players on the teams and then we’ll get a series of telephone calls or emails or texts. So communication is really widespread.

GR: This is something that really none of us have seen in our lifetimes. And there’s a lot of people that are going through a lot of stress right now. And I can only imagine the players and there are so many players from so many countries with so many family situations. The logistics are different for everybody. And there are different situations, and there’s a lot of stress involved in that. What’s the PA doing to assist players or communicate with players to get them through those emotional roller coasters that everybody is living with today, but maybe it’s a little bit more magnified for players since they’re not necessarily in their home environment?

DF: You do a number of things. First of all, you’re in contact with the NHL to make certain that when nothing’s going on, and there’s no reason for people to stay in the club’s home city, that if they don’t live there, they can go home. They can go wherever they feel most comfortable to take care of themselves and their families, especially their kids. They have parents and grandparents they need to look out for that they can do that wherever that happens to be. And sometimes, there are border issues and immigration issues and issues relating to other things. We work through those on a case-by-case basis and occasionally, you have hiccups and problems. But for the most part, you get it worked out. Athletes, of course, in the team sports are used to saying, “all right, we had a game today, we got another game tomorrow and then a game after that” and they very quickly put yesterday behind them. You sort of have to do that because half the teams have to lose every day. That’s the unfortunate part about being an owner, Marvin Miller used to say.

And in this situation, the players are not in a position to be confronted with, okay, we’ll do this until this date, and then we’ll do something else. And we’re going to resume on this other date down the road. And this is what the format’s going to look like. So there’s a lot of waiting involved. That said, the guys understand it. They understand what we’re going through, they understand that we can’t give them the answers we don’t have, and that we don’t want to guess.

GR: Is this a time where the team reps “earn their pay”, although I know it’s probably volunteer. But is this where a team rep for the PA really sort of is able to help his players by being the resource at the team level? Is this something that, I know the PA does a lot for all the players, but is this the time where the team reps really step up and help out the other players?

DF: In large part, I think that’s right. They feel, as a general rule, most of them, they have a responsibility. They have a responsibility to inform the players on their team. They have a responsibility to listen to them, a responsibility to relay their questions to us and then get the answers back or put them directly in communication with a lawyer on staff or the former players on staff. That is an extra role that they take on and they take it on because it’s the right thing to do. With any group of our size, you have people that will be leaders on different kinds of issues, and we certainly do. That was a case throughout my tenure in baseball also. But it’s also the case that my staff really earns its pay during a crisis, too. In that regard, though, I’m not sure we’re all that much different from most other groups or businesses and in the general society. When things are going well, it’s easy. When things are not going well, that’s when we find out.

GR: There’s been a report of (two Ottawa Senators players that are) infected. And there’s been players in the NBA and elsewhere that had been affected. I’m not asking specifics, but in general, when one member of a union when one player is infected with the virus, how does the overall group feel? How do they deal with it? What are they thinking?

DF: I think there’s two different reactions. First of all, virtually everyone assumes that in this kind of situation, sooner or later, we will have players that will contrast the virus. We’re not divorced from the general society, we’re around our wives and families. You can self-isolate to a great extent, but you can’t 100%. Somebody has to deliver the food to your door, for example. So everybody understands in the abstract that it’s very likely sooner or later there will be a player or family members that are going to be positive.

That said, it’s always a surprise. If you say Don Fehr was infected, or Joe Jones was infected, or Graeme was infected, we say “oh, wow, I wouldn’t have expected that from him,” or “what do we do?”. You do the standard stuff you do in every contagious disease, infectious disease situation. You backtrack for context. And you go see who could possibly have been infected, and you figure out where it came from, and you figure out who’s been exposed. And the doctors and the public health officials then do the kind of work they have to do. It’s basic stuff that the doctors know how to do. It’s just in our particular situation.

GR: Around the world, you have leagues and other major events getting cancelled. But now what’s happening is that a lot of cancellations are coming before the NHL next announcement. We all hope that this passes quickly, we all want to get back to normal life. And we all want to see the greatest athletes the world produces back on the ice. What’s your current take on the situation in regards to returning or not returning?

DF: My dad used to say that when I asked him about his World War II service was what was the biggest thing you remember? He would say what you do is, everybody tells you to hurry up and then you get the line and then you wait. And that’s more or less what we’re doing. We’re getting prepared as best we can, for any eventuality that that can come. We hope we’ll be able to resume. We hope that with the NHL, we will have the flexibility to take advantage of an opportunity if and when it arises before next September or October. And then to finish the season, in whatever fashion makes the most sense.

But we can’t do that now. We’re waiting until things become more clear. Where you are dealing with discrete events, whether it’s the World Championships or the Olympic Games that take place within a defined time period, especially when you have massive travel from around the world, and so on. That’s not something you’ve been shut down on a dime. When you’re dealing with a team sport within North America only, it’s at least conceivable that we could start something May 15 or June 10, or some other date and play it out. So that’s what we have to do wait to see. We have to determine what is going to be possible for us to do and then see if it makes sense.

GR: You mentioned the Olympics. And of course, the Winter Olympics are two years away. So it’s a long way away, whilst everybody right now is taking things hour-by-hour. If you’re watching TV, if you’re at home, if you’re self-isolated and you’ve got the news on every hour, there are developments that you’re watching. China in 2022 is way down the road. But do you think that there are any players that might be in the back of their mind thinking that they don’t want to travel to the other side of the world? They’re more cognizant of the risks of traveling than before. Is there any thought about the Olympics 2022? And maybe we should sort of think about whether we go or not, or put in different protocols to ensure our safety?

DF: I think it goes without saying that players and everybody else will have thoughts about how much the world has change or if they’re really certain that this makes sense to do this for health and safety reasons. My assumption is that when we get through this and the statistics will, at some point, indicate that the risks have diminished to an extent that it becomes feasible again – but of course, people are gonna think about it. That’s human nature across the board. In terms of what the NHL might do, in terms of games outside of North America, that will have to be determined based on what the facts are. My assumption is that if, and when – and hopefully soon – we get back to the point where the borders are opening in and you can have international travel, those kinds of concerns that we’re talking about will have been diminished to an extent that they won’t be serious. If that is not the case, people are going to weigh and measure those very strongly.

GR: As the PA, are you going to revisit the travel rules? I know now that when players travel, there are certain precautions taken, certain security and such that’s taken and around the players to protect them from the unknown. Are those going to be heightened?

DF: I don’t know. I’d have to see what they were because we’re not talking about heightening for purposes of physical security like you would normally see. Of ccourse players all travel on charters. You’re talking about heightening protection or a sense of ongoing semi-isolation as you travel. And I’m sure that we’ll figure out a way to take whatever the reasonable precautions are.

GR: Everything that you’re talking about here today applies to all athletes across all sports. But from your position of experience dealing with players from multiple sports and from different countries – Major League Baseball gets a lot of players from South America and Central America. And so I think now with you’re wearing those two hats that you’ve worn, you’ve really been able to interact with professional athletes really from around the world. What happened with that experience? What what is it that what message do you want all the professional athletes out there to hear coming out of Don Fehr?

DF: It’s a little hard to come to grips with because as I was thinking about it, as you were asking the question, there are lots and lots and lots of things that you would want to say. Sort of like saying what would you want your grandchildren to remember about you or to know about you and a million things come to mind. I understand you’ve got to boil it down to an essence. Professional athletes, particularly in the team sports, and in my experience, this is true regardless of the sport, regardless of the culture – whether it’s cricket in India, or you know, rugby in New Zealand or any of those things as well as the ones was much more common in North America, soccer worldwide and so on – is that They have a unique position. I don’t mean unique in terms of financial opportunities or publicity or playing fame or anything like that. I mean unique in terms of the role that they can play in a society.

Throughout my career, I’ve been struck by the following: a city can be a mess. But if a team gets to the championship game, whether it’s the World Series or the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl, whatever it is, at that point, everybody in the locale sort of comes together. And they either celebrate together or they commiserate together, depending on what the result is. And when we can begin to go back to normal, I think it can be a signal that things are returning to normal and we can lead a little bit in that regard. But We have to do so keeping in mind that what’s really important here are the public health issues, that those are paramount. They’re more important than all the rest of the things we are talking about put together.

One of the things I’ve been struck with since this happened here is how over thoughtful and deliberate players are understanding that we want to make sure to the greatest extent we can that the health of everybody in the game, everybody that works with the game, and all the fans is at the top of our mind.

GR: Everything we’ve talked about is about everybody else. I guess the question I have for you is how are you doing? How’s your family doing? You know, yes, you lead many hundreds of athletes, you’re a leader on the global stage. But in your own home, you’re the head of the household. How are things at home?

DF: Oh, I wouldn’t suggest at home that I was the head of the household that might provoke a disagreement. We’re okay. We’re okay. We’re spread out everywhere in terms of our immediate family. And everybody’s doing the best we can and so far everybody’s healthy. And getting through it. And you know, hopefully, that will remain.

Parts of this Q&A has been edited for clarity.

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