U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will lead NHL players union

The hockey players’ union has been searching for a new executive director to take over for Don Fehr, who had been in charge for more than a decade.

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U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is expected to become executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is expected to become executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.

Susan Walsh/AP

WASHINGTON — U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is expected to leave the Biden administration to run the National Hockey League Players’ Association, according to two people familiar with his plans.

The hockey players’ union has been searching for a new executive director to take over for Don Fehr, who had been in charge for more than a decade. An association spokesperson had no official update on the situation when reached Tuesday.

A serious fan of the Boston Bruins, Walsh showed an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport in videos posted online during his tenure from 2014 to 2021 as mayor of Boston.

As labor secretary, Walsh helped broker a temporary work agreement between major freight railroads and their unions, preventing the risk of a strike that could have disrupted the U.S. economy ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Congress later imposed a contract on the unions after workers failed to ratify the agreement.

An administration official said Tuesday that Walsh was expected to leave his post after President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, as did a second person familiar with Walsh’s plans, who stressed that the plan was not yet final. Both people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss departure plans.

Walsh’s departure would make him the first of Biden’s Cabinet secretaries to leave. White House chief of staff Ron Klain has his last day at the White House on Wednesday. And last week, Biden announced the upcoming departure of Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council.

Incoming chief of staff Jeff Zients has spent the last several months working to prepare the administration for potential staff turnover as Biden hit the two-year mark in office. After two years of unusual stability in the staffing ranks, White House officials have telegraphed that additional changes are likely in the coming months as burned-out staff seek new opportunities and are replaced by those with fresh energy — and as Biden prepares for the expected launch of his reelection campaign in the coming months.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who ran against Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, was a candidate for the Labor position at the start of Biden’s presidency but decided against it because it could have put control of the Senate at risk, since a Republican governor would have picked Sanders’ replacement. He said Tuesday that he was not interested in succeeding Walsh.

“I like my own job right now very much,” said Sanders, who is now chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which would oversee Walsh’s replacement’s confirmation process.

Sanders said candidates he liked included Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Biden noted in a January speech to mayors that Walsh was making sure that government construction projects paid a prevailing wage and that apprenticeship programs were giving blue-collar workers needed skills.

Walsh, 55, moved into politics after rising through the ranks of a construction union. At the age of 21, he joined Laborers’ Local 223 and eventually became its president. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1997 and stayed in the legislature until being elected mayor. He was also formerly head of the Boston Building Trades union.

The NHLPA began its pursuit of a successor for Fehr in late April, naming a seven-player search committee and hiring a firm to assist. Fehr, best known for his lengthy career running the Major League Baseball Players Association, started working for hockey’s union in December 2010 and was quickly named executive director, overseeing collective bargaining negotiations in 2013 and 2020.

After emerging as the top candidate from a group that included former Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis and longtime NHLPA special assistant to the executive director, Mathieu Schneider, Walsh takes over at a time of growing NHL revenues with three years remaining until the next round of CBA talks. The league is projecting nearly $6 billion this season.

“I have met Marty a couple of times when he was the Mayor of Boston, but beyond that there’s nothing to add,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday during a state of the league address at All-Star Weekend. “I’m not going to comment on who may or may not be the next executive director. It would be inappropriate, and if I went far enough, could violate the federal labor laws. The fact of the matter is, we’re very respectful of what the players are doing. They’re going to conduct the process for a new executive director as they see fit, and whoever it is we’ll work with.”

Fehr’s tenure saw NHL players participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics before the league was unable to reach an agreement to send them in 2018. The league and union negotiated the completion of the 2019-20 season during the pandemic, extending the CBA until 2026.

The NHLPA had already been looking for a successor when an investigation into the Chicago Blackhawks’ handling of a report a player was sexually assaulted by a video coach in 2010 and a subsequent interview by that player raised questions about what Fehr and others knew at the time and why they did not act. The union launched its own investigation that found Fehr was not at fault, citing instead miscommunication and misunderstanding for the lack of action.

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