Inside the NHL
NHL players’ decision last week against reopening their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with owners two years early wasn’t too surprising given rumors that talks on an extension are progressing.
The league now has three more seasons of labor peace ahead and potentially five or six, depending on whether that extension gets done. NHL Seattle can now set future payrolls and prepare to draft players knowing the sport’s financial parameters aren’t changing.
But despite positive vibes before last Monday’s decision, nobody familiar with NHL labor-relations history took it for granted players wouldn’t terminate the CBA. In fact, it was somewhat astounding to see players sacrifice their biggest leverage hammer — a potential work stoppage in 12 months — on good faith owners would continue talks to improve contentious areas of the deal.
You see, the NHL’s treatment of players has historically verged on shameful. Never mind team owners, players often have barely even trusted their own union to do right by them.
Owners for decades ran their former six-team league like feudal land barons. Players were handed a contract and sent packing if they didn’t sign.
Poulsbo resident and longtime NHL defenseman Bert Marshall remembers getting to camp with the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1960s and hearing how then-general manager Jack Adams carried “pink slips in his back pocket” for any contract holdouts. Marshall made the Red Wings in 1964-65 and earned $7,500 in finishing runner-up for Rookie of the Year honors. The next season, he received a blank contract to sign and was told he’d know his salary a few weeks later. He got a $2,000 raise.
“There was no negotiation, no input,” Marshall said. “There was nothing you could do.”
The Red Wings, of course, were led on ice by the legendary Gordie Howe, who was used by team owner Bruce Norris to suppress salaries. Howe famously wanted just “to play hockey’’ and signed anything Norris gave him, whereupon the owner told other players not as good they couldn’t expect more money than “Mr. Hockey.’’
Howe discovered in 1969 he was Detroit’s third-highest-paid player at $45,000 and his wife, Colleen, had to negotiate a raise to $100,000 on his behalf.
Stuff like that had led to the current NHL Players’ Association’s (NHLPA) creation in 1967 and appointment of player agent Alan Eagleson — who had negotiated Bobby Orr’s record contract with Boston — as executive director. Eagleson the next quarter-century became the most powerful figure in hockey.
The Toronto lawyer organized the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union and Canada Cup international tournaments — precursors to today’s World Cup of Hockey — with proceeds supposedly benefiting player pensions.
Eagleson was so powerful he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1989 — the first pro sports union official receiving such an honor.
But concerns were being raised about Eagleson’s close relationship with league commissioner John Ziegler, his cozying up to management, bullying of players and accusations he’d lined his pockets with player-pension and insurance money.
“He took care of his own clients and kept the owners happy,” Marshall said.
As a result, NHL players were the last in major sports to achieve unrestricted free agency, their salaries among the lowest by the 1990s. Players such as longtime defenseman Ed Kea — who drowned in 1999 at age 51 in what some suspect was a suicide — were left without adequate disability payments after suffering catastrophic injuries.
Investigative reporting by Russ Conway of The Eagle-Tribune in Massachusetts helped force Eagleson’s resignation in 1992 and eventual police probes. Eagleson pleaded guilty in 1998 to mail fraud in the U.S. and fraud and embezzlement of Canada Cup proceeds in his home country. He served six months in a Canadian prison.
Upon Eagleson’s resignation, Bob Goodenow took over the NHLPA and within two months launched a strike that led to a salary explosion and permanently altered player relations with owners. The owners ousted commissioner Ziegler, permanently replacing him in 1993 with current chief Gary Bettman.
There have been three NHL labor stoppages since, one costing the 2004-05 season and shifting power back to owners through a hard salary cap. Players, some remembering the bad times under Eagleson, pushed Goodenow to resign.
Ted Saskin replaced him, but was terminated after two years for misconduct. Later, Paul Kelly also was fired two years in.
Donald Fehr took over and by fall 2012, owners had locked players out again. Fehr threatened to decertify the union — allowing players to file antitrust lawsuits against the league. Owners alleged bad faith.
Not wanting to lose another season to the stalemate, both sides scrambled to reach a deal in January 2013 and played half a season. But players weren’t thrilled — and still aren’t — with the hasty way a 50-50 revenue split with owners was calculated and maintained.
So, it’s somewhat miraculous players aren’t marching toward another lockout. To hear Marshall, the reason his player generation was so poorly paid was simple: “We had no leverage.”
And yet, players have now sacrificed their CBA termination leverage for the good of a league not always kind to them.
Then again, that league could soon triple U.S. national-television revenue come 2022. It’s also fully embarking on sports-gaming partnerships this season after adding new player-and-puck-tracking data.
And remember, it’s splitting revenue from that with players 50-50.
So, in effect, players would have put that new money at risk by triggering a lockout countdown just as these additional windfalls start emerging. And that’s likely why, as bad as they’ve previously been burned, they’ve seemingly opted to play the long game in hopes the future bears fruit.