Time for NHL to talk Europe: Fehr

Throwing caution to the wind, the NHL Players' Association's new executive director told Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean the possibility exists to delve further into the European market and create a "transatlantic rivalry."

New union executive sees rare opportunity among major pro sports

Don Fehr was thinking big Saturday night, just hours after being announced as the new executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association.

Throwing caution to the wind during an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean, Fehr said the possibility exists to delve further into the European market and create a "transatlantic rivalry."

There has been talk for years of a potential division consisting of teams in London, Prague, Stockholm, Zurich, Berlin and Helsinki. Fehr, for one, sees a big opportunity for the NHL.

Don Fehr sounds off on ...

A perceived automatic discord upon his hiring: "It's funny to hear people say that because there's been far more labour peace in baseball the last 16 years than there has been in the other [pro sports]. And if you read the newspapers now, it certainly looks that way again. We did have our share of difficulties, but that was a while ago and we got past it."

How he can strategically or philosophically offer change within the players' union: "You have to educate yourself about the industry. You have to educate yourself about the economics of the industry and then see if you can come up with alternatives which are not only better for your own constituents — in this case, the players — but also can interest management in an idea that might be better overall for the game."

NHL players participating in future Olympics: "If you can strike the right kind of agreement and it works, then obviously the Olympics is something you want to take advantage of. You want players to be able to participate if you can. In baseball, it was very tough to do because it was simply not possible and no one was willing to shut the season for it. … There's no doubt there are a whole lot of players who want to play."

— Doug Harrison

"The other three [professional] sports [NBA, MLB and NFL] are obviously predominantly American. Hockey is not," the 62-year-old Fehr told MacLean. "There is a very important European contingent which you don't have in the other three sports.

"I don't know that eventually [a transatlantic rivalry is] the future, but it does seem to me that's something that makes hockey unique and really ought to be looked at."

A few years ago, while serving as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, Fehr was part of a group that attempted to develop the Pacific Rim — the countries and cities around the edge of the Pacific Ocean, such as Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, South Korea.

Teams supplemented their Latin American talent by going to the Pacific Rim, where baseball is extremely popular.

Eventually, there was an influx of talent heading to the major leagues, including pitcher Hideo Nomo, slugger Hideki Matsui and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

Fehr believes hockey would be further ahead than baseball if it tapped further into the European market.

"First, they already play hockey there. They already know the game, they already love the game," he said. "Secondly, it is a very well-developed economic marketplace. Not uniformly and not completely across the board. Some countries are different than others but it's a really good jumping-off place. You don't have to teach them what the game is."

In his 26 years with MLB union, Fehr said the players were the big pushers toward developing the international aspect of the game.

"I don't know whether that can be done here," he said. "What I do know is, it's going to be very difficult to do that or to do anything significantly without it being co-operative."

In 2008, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said having a separate division in Europe was a dream he would like to become reality within 10 years.

European players accounted for only 11 per cent of the NHL's membership in 1990, a number that climbed to 25 per cent in the 2009-10 campaign.

Edmonton Oilers assistant coach Ralph Krueger, who coached the Swiss national team for 13 years before coming to the NHL, has seen the benefit of the league's visibility in Europe.

"The NHL can expand into Europe right now the way they are doing it, by playing with other club teams and keeping their presence here alive," Krueger told the Regina Leader-Post in August.

In October, six NHL teams travelled overseas to play a record six games to open the regular season, while seven exhibition contests were held in Europe's emerging hockey hotbeds.