There's no mistaking when Donald Fehr is in the room. The legendary sports labor leader has that "whoa" factor.
"He's a heck of a presence," Buffalo Sabres defenseman Mike Weber said. "I don't know how else to put it."
The members of the NHL Players' Association, who have seen eras of infighting and executives who earned jail time, feel they finally have a larger-than-life leader who can stand toe-to-toe with NHL Commissioner/czar Gary Bettman. The players claim to be united like never before, and Fehr gets the credit.
"A lot of the trouble we had with our leadership in the last 10 years, he's been able to stabilize it and turn it around pretty quickly," Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said last week while meeting in New York with 282 other players. "To get this many guys out here to show solidarity, you don't just do it for anybody. We feel like they have our best interest and they're working really hard, so we're going to do what we can do to help out."
The players hired Fehr as their executive director in December 2010 because they saw another labor fight coming. After losing an entire season and 24 percent of their paychecks in 2004-05, they wanted Fehr and his 26 years of experience leading the Major League Baseball Players' Association on their side for this round of collective bargaining.
"They asked me a couple years ago to be part of this group to help them negotiate an agreement that they thought would be fair and appropriate," Fehr said. "For me to be a part of this team has been an absolutely extraordinary privilege and an extraordinary honor."
Fehr's work begins in earnest now. The league announced Wednesday that it has canceled all preseason games through Sept. 30. Four exhibitions featuring the Buffalo Sabres are affected, including two home games.
"The cancellation of the schedule was necessary because of the absence of a Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL Players' Association and the NHL," the league said in a statement.
The Sabres were scheduled to open the preseason Monday in Montreal. Next Wednesday's game against Boston in First Niagara Center is canceled, as are the Sept. 28 visit by the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Sabres' Sept. 29 trip to Toronto.
Three games remain on Buffalo's exhibition slate: at Columbus on Oct. 2; at Boston on Oct. 5; and at home against the Blue Jackets on Oct. 6.
Bettman locked out the players Sunday for the third time in his 19˝-year tenure. He and the hard-line owners have shown they will do whatever it takes to win negotiations. The players got Fehr because he has the same reputation.
"We've got the right man for the job," Sabres captain Jason Pominville said.
Bettman's status among hockey fans is as the sneering know-it-all with little patience. Fehr earned his share of detractors by leading the 1994 baseball strike that forced the cancellation of the World Series, but he is attempting to show a common-man side this time.
When a reporter mentioned the lockout won't be Fehr's "first rodeo" in regards to sports work stoppages, the 64-year-old quickly grinned.
"You're bringing back my Kansas roots talking about my first rodeo," said Fehr, who grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Prairie Village.
He has been eager to participate in casual chats, and his demeanor and intelligence have been a hit with the players.
"Don has done a good job of keeping us even keel and answering questions and being straightforward with us and blunt at times, if need be," said defenseman Jordan Leopold, who has been handling most of the union duties for the Sabres.
Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek remembers Fehr inviting the Sabres to meet with him two years ago during a road trip. Vanek said only he and Steve Montador showed up at the dinner.
"Now, two and a half years later, there's 300 guys there," Vanek said. "You can see he's very honest, straightforward, and he puts it in a way that I think everyone can understand it. That will help a lot for guys to stay together because he explains it in a way - I know a little bit more about it, but the numbers still get complicated. You get dizzy at one point. Don does a good thing where he keeps everyone informed in a good, smart way, and I think that helps us out a lot."
Fehr has kept the players abreast of negotiations throughout the talks. He sends emails and conducts conference calls, and the players even have their own smartphone app to stay in the loop. Having different methods of communication will be important now that players have begun to take jobs overseas.
"I think it's even helped with fans and media as well," Miller said. "I think you guys are getting a lot of information that I think last time was very clouded and very inconsistent. I think that's huge. He understands the value of information, and you can tell by how educated he is and by how well he speaks."
The person Fehr needs to talk with now is Bettman. Wednesday marked a full week without formal negotiations. Training camps are scheduled to open Friday, but there seems to be no end in sight for the lockout.
"We're not dealing with stupid people on the other side," Fehr said. "They know what they're doing. Hopefully, over time we'll be able to find some common ground. I hope the time doesn't take very long."