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The Puck Stops Here

Updated History Of The NHLPA

I think one important part of the NHL story that is under reported is that of the NHLPA.  Therefore I have kept a short history of the NHLPA that I am updating annually.

Here is the most recent version.  A far more detailed history that ends in 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 salary capped 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.

The NHLPA turned to Boston lawyer Paul Kelly to be their fourth head. He wants to start a new era of the NHLPA where they are far more involved in NHL activities (as they are said to be partners under the current CBA).  His first significant test came when NHL Ombudsman Eric Lindros (a position created to oversee the NHLPA head) was forced into resignation.  This hinted at problems in the NHLPA structure.  This position has been filled on a temporary basis by Canadian union leader Buzz Hargrove.  When it came time to review Kelly’s position as NHLPA head, he was surprisingly fired by the union.  This again left the NHLPA without leadership.  Several other NHLPA members departed as a result of this move, including Buzz Hargrove. 

Though the NHLPA does not have an official head, Donald Fehr, a former baseball players union leader, has been advising it.  Many expect he will someday become the official NHLPA head, though this is not happening particularly quickly. 

The NHLPA is not particularly powerful in any of the the NHL’s decisions today as a direct result of their lack of leadership.  There is hope that a revival of some sort will occur, but it is unlikely that it will ever reach the power it had under Bob Goodenow.


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J.J. from Kansas's avatar

I continue to hope that the NHLPA will get their leadership issues in order when it comes time to negotiate a new CBA.  The current one is not a horrible, or even a particularly bad deal for the players, but it could get much worse if the league’s powers to exert their will remain unchecked.

I believe that, with a strong and knowledgeable NHLPA head, the issues with the Coyotes’ ownership and location would be much more favorable to everybody involved (except the city of Glendale, the people about which I care the least in this situation).  After all, last year set a precedent that it could be the players who are most responsible for propping up the teams in the league with the most bleak financial outlooks and therefore should be the players who are joining in the fight to make sure that there are the proper number of NHL teams in the proper locations.

I’d also like to see the union take a more active stance in the refereeing inconsistency issues and with the issues of league-imposed supplemental discipline.

I don’t think the relationship between the players’ union and the league has to be as confrontational as what I’ve written would appear to make it so, but there needs to be a voice coming from the players.  I don’t want to have to wait for Supreme Court verdicts to come down to make sure that there’s a system in place to balance league power.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 06/12/10 at 12:52 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

I do not like the direction that the NHL is taking the league.  i probably would not like the direction the NHLPA would like to take it either, if they had enough power to have a coherent direction.  The value to a strong NHLPA is that is a check to the NHL and will slow down its moves.  Right now, the NHL can do whatever it wants and nobody has significant say beyond Gary Bettman’s office.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 06/12/10 at 12:56 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

That’s exactly my thoughts on it.  I don’t want the NHLPA to hold all the power either, but something has to check the league’s power before Bettman talks the BoG into believing that the NBA model is the one they have to follow.  I hate the NBA model and I think, of all the major leagues, the product that the NBA puts on the court has the least integrity.

Basically, I view it as the NHL being the voice of which business decisions are best for the league and striving to do whatever it takes to squeeze the most value out of every decision. 

As a foil to that, (in an ideal world), I want the NHLPA to be the voice of the integrity of the game, blocking the league when they try to implement a policy that may be the best overall business decision, but crosses a line and takes away from the true spirit of competition amongst all the teams.

I know I’m speaking of ideals here, when in reality a powerful NHLPA would also probably willingly sacrifice integrity in parts of the game, since now they’re “business partners” and their dollars are tied to league profits.  But that’s the way I would like it.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 06/12/10 at 01:06 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.

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