For head of NHL Players Association, childhood years in Prairie Village helped form worldview

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Donald Fehr

Donald Fehr is best known as one of the most prominent voices in sports law, having led the Major League Baseball Players Association through the 1994-95 strike and heading the National Hockey League’s Players Association since 2010.

But back in the mid-1960s, Fehr was an average kid growing up in Prairie Village. Fehr attended Somerset Elementary, Meadowbrook Junior High and SM East before going on to college at the Indiana University and later taking his law degree from the University of Missouri — Kansas City. Fehr, who will be back in town Friday as the keynote speaker at the annual Media and the Law Seminar hosted by the University of Kansas School of Law, says his experiences in Shawnee Mission schools helped spark an interest in civics and history that served as the foundation for his legal career.

One of his most prominent memories from SM East came in a history class when the teacher mentioned that during medieval times, people — youth included — drank mead or ale with their meals. Fehr remembers some snickering from the class at the idea of teenagers swilling mead with their lunch, but then the teacher asked the class if they knew why everyone drank alcoholic beverages.

“We kind of futzed around for a few minutes, and then finally he said, ‘It’s because they wouldn’t get sick,'” Fehr said. “That kind of turned on a switch in my head, that people do things for a reason. They drank mead because they wouldn’t get sick, where they would get sick if they were drinking water from the river or the well or whatever. That always stuck with me: Even if people couldn’t tell you exactly why they were doing something, there is always a reason.”

Fehr’s thinking about what motivates people and why plays a prominent role in the high-stakes negotiations he’s overseen in his executive director roles with the MLBPA and NHLPA. He credits his formative years in Prairie Village with helping prepare him to take on such a challenging career.

“I found that the education I had gotten at the schools I attended prepared me better for college work than most of my classmates,” he said. “Not all. But most.”

Now 67, Fehr splits most of his time between New York and Toronto, where the NHLPA’s offices are located. But he and his wife Stephanie still keep a condominium in Overland Park and return to the area several times per year to visit family. His younger brother, Steve, is also an attorney and still lives in the area. Steve works closely with Don on NHLPA matters.

“We talk almost every day,” Fehr said of his brother. “We’ve been working together since back in the baseball days.”