Note: This article has been updated for clarity.
As the current NBA lockout recalls bad memories of the NHL’s lost 2004-2005 season, the deep-seated connection between labor disputes and the love of the game once again takes center stage. And the hockey pros’ union has a new general counsel, Don Zavelo, getting in the game a year ahead of the skaters’ own collective bargaining negotiations.

Zavelo officially joins the Toronto-based National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) on Monday, 11 days after the season openers. He leaves his government attorney post at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), where he worked on some of the board’s most high-profile sports and entertainment labor disputes in the Manhattan region for over 20 years—including the 1994-95 MLB strike and the recent collective bargaining in the NFL.

“I really love labor law and sports and just the idea of being able to combine those two things—it’s a dream job,” Zavelo said in a phone interview this week. With the NHL collective bargaining agreement set to expire on September 15, 2012, player contracts are top of mind for Zavelo: “Preparing for and conducting those negotiations will be on the front burner.”

Prominent in the public eye, however, are questions about head injuries, concussions, and fighting that still loom large from last season.

Pittsburgh Penguins player Sidney Crosby started this season on the injured list, a holdover from a concussion he sustained in January. Given the Crosby incident and others like it, the league and the union developed a concussion protocol that allows for fuller medical examinations of players during games.

Then, over the spring and summer, the league sustained three tragic losses. In May, former New York Rangers player Derek Boogaard died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers. In August, Rick Rypien, who had signed with the Winnipeg Jets, and retired player Wade Belak both committed suicide within a span of weeks. All three men had played as enforcers, an unofficial position considered to be one of the most violent posts in the sport.

In response to the deaths, last month NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and league commissioner Gary Bettman issued a joint statement [PDF] on their commitment to evaluate “assistance programs and practices” in place for players: “We are committed to examining, in detail, the factors that may have contributed to these events, and to determining whether concrete steps can be taken to enhance player welfare and minimize the likelihood of such events taking place.”

For now, Zavelo remains more circumspect until he officially dons the association’s GC jersey. “I do recognize that these are profoundly important issues,” he said with regard to how he will approach players’ mental and physical health in his new job.

Zavelo also walks into a union office that’s seen its share of turnover turmoil ever since former executive director and general counsel Bob Goodenow was forced out of the association after the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season, the result of stalled negotiations.

Goodenow’s replacement, Ted Saskin, was then fired, having hacked into the email accounts of players and union staff. Following the hacking scandal, the players ratified a new union constitution that split the executive director and general counsel roles.

Those slots were filled by Paul Kelly, who took the executive director spot in October 2007, and by Ian Penny, who came on as general counsel in November 2007. Both were short-lived terms. Kelly was fired in August 2009. Penny replaced him as interim executive director, only to resign a couple of months later.

Current union head Don Fehr, a former executive director of the MLB Players’ Association, took the reins in December 2010.

It’s a history that Zavelo says he is well aware of, while also keeping his sights trained ahead. “I love the vision that Don [Fehr], and the players, and the staff share for the future,” Zavelo said, adding that Fehr did a “remarkable job” leading baseball’s union, which he thinks Fehr has continued doing for hockey players.

Zavelo has known Fehr since his days at the NLRB, when baseball’s 1994-1995 strike brought games to a halt in another one of sporting history’s major labor disputes.

A University of Kansas law school alum, Zavelo followed his passion for labor law right out of school, joining the NLRB after graduation. He worked for the board in Kansas City for about 10 years before transferring to the Manhattan office, where he worked from 1988 until last week, most recently as the deputy regional attorney.

The Manhattan office, with a staff of more than 40 attorneys and investigators is “one of the board’s largest and busiest offices in the country,” Zavelo said. “It handles some of the most difficult and, I guess you’d say, most controversial, cases in the country—sort of a showcase region for the board because it has jurisdiction over all of the labor disputes that arise in Manhattan.”

But now he’s focused on his work for the NHLPA. And how has he been getting ready this new GC spot? “I read the sports section first thing each morning,” he said.