Monday, July 09, 2007

Updated History of the NHLPA

In 2005, I wrote My Brief History of the NHLPA. In the less than two years that have passed since then, many changes have happened. Ted Saskin has exited the scene, so I thought I would update the post. The majority of this post is copied directly from the previous one. The updates are made to the end of the post to cover that which has happened since 2005.

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 concessions 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 independent 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 benefited the NHL or the Chicago Blackhawks. For example, he had Bobby Orr (a player for whom he served as an agent and from whom he stole) leave Boston to sign as a free agent with Chicago. He agreed to NHL CBAs that benefited 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 given 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 challenged this process. They had several failed court challenges of Saskin's administration until it was revealed that Ted Saskin and the NHLPA senior director Ken Kim were spying on player's emails and were eventually let go from their NHLPA positions.

This leaves the NHLPA without a suitable leadership. There is a search for a new director. In the meantime, lawyer Ian Penny and former player Stu Grimson are the de facto leadership. There is no clear direction until a new leader is found. Whether the NHLPA finds somebody who is willing to fight the owners or give in to their demands will do a lot to set the future of the NHL's labor situation. There could be further strikes or lockouts or relative peace where hockey is played without stoppage. There could be challenges to the entire structure of the NHL brought on by either NHLPA leadership or by failing franchises in many newer US markets. How this is responded to will set the direction of the league for years to come.

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