Tuesday, November 22, 2005

My Brief History Of The NHLPA

With all NHLPA turmoil, I thought it would be a good time to give a brief history of the NHLPA. A far more detailed history that goes to the early 1990's is the book Net Worth by David Cruise.

Throughout most of the NHL's history there has been no player's union. There have been a few failed attempts to organize. In general, the players involved in attempts to organize a union were blackballed or otherwise punished by management of the league.

In the 1960's a brash young lawyer who was at first quite popular with the players came onto the scene. He was Alan Eagleson. He first gained notice in an AHL dispute with Eddie Shore (the Hall of Fame defender) who owned the Springfield Indians. shore was known as a brutal taskmaster who, among other things, made injured and healthy scratch players park cars and sell consessions at hockey games. The players revolted in 1966 and Eagleson convinced Shore that his team would quit on him and not continue the rest of the season unless he let up on them. Possibly because Shore was an old man who was ready to get out of owning and managing and coaching an AHL franchise he agreed to see the team. The previously independant Springfield Indians were sold to the expansion Los Angeles Kings to be their farm club. Thus, the myth of Alan Eagleson was born.

Alan Eagleson was recruited to head up the first NHLPA in 1967 (a position he held until he was forced to resign in 1992). Eagleson quickly realized what the NHL owners had long known. NHL players in general are not too savvy when it comes to business or legal questions and they are easy to take advantage of. Eagleson was a corrupt union head. His downfall came charged with fraud, embezzlement and racketeering. He stole money from the NHL pension fund. He served as a player agent for several NHL players and stole money from them. Her stole money from TV broadcasting of international hockey (such as Canada Cups and the 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series). He was close friends with NHL President John Ziegler and Chicago Blackhawk owner Bill Wirtz and under the pretense of negotiation often agreed to deals that benefitted the NHL or the Chicago Blackhawks. For example, he had Bobby Orr (a player for whom he served as an agent and from who he stole) leave Boston to sign as a free agent with Chicago. He agreed to NHL CBAs that benefitted the NHL owners often claiming the NHL players had won a great pension plan (he claimed it was the best pension in pro sports). This pension plan in the late 1980's paid Gordie Howe (the man who had the most games and seasons played in NHL history) on the order of $800 a month. Eagleson was found guilty and served time in jail after being removed as NHLPA head. More information on him can be found in the book Game Misconduct by Russ Conway.

The NHLPA then held a search for a new head. They eventually settled upon Bob Goodenow and ratified his appointment with a vote in 1992. Goodenow for the first time ever in the NHLPA actually negotiated in the player's best interest. He negotiated the 1994/95 lockout settlement which gave us the old NHL CBA (which in my opinion is the fairest deal the NHL has ever had) by taking a hardline stance with the owners.

In the 2004/05 lockout, after the owners cancelled the season, many members of the NHLPA executive became concerned that the owners might be willing to keep hockey out long enough to kill the rest of their careers. This group (including NHLPA President Trevor Linden) made an end run around Bob Goodenow and let his number two Ted Saskin negotiate on their behalf. They were confident that the players would pass any CBA they were gtiven to get back to playing hockey. This was a breach of NHLPA rules. If the players wanted to stop the hardline negotiation of Goodenow and replace him with Saskin they had to have an open vote to do this. They could vote to fire Goodenow and hire Saskin. They skipped this.

Saskin negotiated the pro-owner current CBA. A group of dissident players led by Trent Klatt are challenging this process. On Monday, they met with the US Labor Relations Board to state their case. The timeframe for a decision is unclear. Exactly what the decision might be is unclear.

They could call for an open vote between Saskin and other candidates found by a search. They could even void the current CBA (although this is unlikely) pending another vote on it. If this is a long drawn out process, it could be springtime when this is happening. This could put players in a good bargaining position where they have been paid most of their contracts and the playoffs (when the owners make the most money) would be in jeopardy. It would be a strategic time for a player strike. Players might be more likely to want to void the CBA in that they would likely be given back the money they lost to escrow over the season. It could get very ugly and very complicated.

Most likely, a candidate who would challenge Ted Saskin for NHLPA head would take a hardline stance against the owners (afterall he cannot really take a softer stance can he?). If this candidate is backed by Trent Klatt or Steve Larmer, this candidate would have a very good chance of beating Saskin. At this point, there is likely no way to mend the damage done to the NHLPA with Saskin involved. The NHLPA is better off if he steps aside instead of continuing his current plan of circling the wagons and trying to hold onto power at all costs.

Another good read on the current NHLPA situation is from Tom Benjamin.

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