Veteran labor lawyer wants NHLPA job

Originally Published: October 9, 2009
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

David Feher, a nationally recognized sports labor law expert, is interested in helping the struggling NHL Players Association solve its problems.

Feher, 51, a veteran of labor wars in the NFL and the NBA who has negotiated eight major collective bargaining agreements, wants the job, according to a number of lawyers and union officials familiar with the situation. Feher declined to comment to ESPN.com.

Feher is one of a number of names mentioned as a possible successor to Paul Kelly, the union's former executive director who was dismissed in late August. Another is Doug Allen, a tenacious former deputy to the late Gene Upshaw and the NFL Players Association. Allen, who could not be reached for comment, was recently ousted from his post with the Screen Actors Guild.

"David Feher has a long history of player advocacy and would be just what the players need at this time," said Paul Haagen, a professor at Duke and one of the nation's leading authorities on sports and labor law.

"He is aggressive when it is necessary, and, more importantly, he can be calm and take a considered approach to the issues when it is necessary," Haagen added. "With the brutal infighting that has gone on at this point, David will know how to end the warfare and to move into what works collectively for the players."

In a conference call on Sunday, NHL player reps and other players argued for several hours about the situation, discussing a settlement with Kelly and possible dismissals of union ombudsman Buzz Hargrove, advisory board member Ron Pink, and union general counsel Ian Penny. Hargrove, Pink, and Penny were part of a group that pushed the players to dismiss Kelly in a contentious, pre-dawn meeting in Chicago on Aug. 31.

Under the terms of the union's constitution, Penny, as general counsel, reports directly to the board of player reps and not to the executive director. The constitution, which was written in response to earlier union difficulties with its disgraced founder Alan Eagleson, also established an advisory board that operates outside the authority of the executive director.

The players have not made final decisions on these issues. They are preparing for a conference call on Oct. 18, the next off day for all NHL teams. Some of them are suggesting that the union find a way to bring Kelly back as its leader.

"The players are dividing into factions, the union's structure is deeply flawed, and I am not sure why anyone would even consider the job at this point," said one sports labor lawyer who has worked in the past for the NHL Players Association and wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issues.

Feher is a partner in the Dewey LeBoeuf law firm in New York and has spent more than 20 years representing players' unions both in bargaining and in litigation. He is the ninth of 10 children from a union family.

Chip Yablonski, a lawyer who has served the NFL Players Association in numerous court cases and whose father was assassinated by United Mine Workers thugs as he tried to reform the union, said of Feher, "He has worked in the trenches for players, and his work is high quality stuff."

Feher was one of the principal authors of a brief filed recently in the U.S. Supreme Court by four player unions in the case known as American Needle vs. NFL, a case that many experts say could be the most significant case ever in the sports industry.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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