By Ken Campbell and Rory Boylen
Labor peace between the NHL and its players has dominated the news of late, but the league has a far more immediate concern with its on-ice officials.
THN.com has learned that with less than two weeks to go before the NHL starts holding pre-season games, the league and the NHL Officials’ Association are still without a collective bargaining agreement for this season. The previous agreement expired Aug. 31 and while talks between the two sides are ongoing, THN.com has learned the league has approached non-NHL officials in both the American League and the ECHL to determine whether or not they would be interested in acting as replacement officials should an agreement not be reached.
One minor league official contacted by THN.com said he has received two calls in the past two days from other minor league officials asking if he would be part of a group that would work games.
“I think it is wrong to be a scab,” he told THN.com. “I would never be a replacement (official), but there are a lot of my colleagues that are surprisingly jumping at the chance.”
The league opens its pre-season schedule Sept. 21 with nine games and the league has said it will go ahead with games whether or not there is an agreement with the NHLOA. The league’s 39 referees and 35 linesmen completed their annual training camp in Fort Erie, Ont., Friday afternoon and have received their officiating assignments for the pre-season.
Both sides are being extraordinarily tight-lipped about the negotiations. Until now, there has been nothing reported on the expiration of the agreement and several on-ice officials contacted by THN.com maintained the agreement has not expired. The NHL, however, maintains it expired Aug. 31. Harry Radomski, who acts as general counsel for the NHLOA and is its chief negotiator, refused to comment on the situation at all, including answering whether or not the agreement has expired and whether or not the two sides are currently negotiating a new deal.
The fact the league has contacted minor league officials with the prospect of being replacements can be interpreted in a couple of ways. One is the league is simply preparing itself for the possibility that an agreement isn’t reached and is making sure it has officials in place for the pre-season and regular season. Another would be that it is using the threat of replacement referees as a negotiating tactic.
On-ice officials reached by THN.com refused to discuss what the issues are, but money and pensions are sure to be at the forefront. But one minor league official who is not on the NHL’s docket said big-league officials are becoming increasingly concerned about their job security and a lack of transparency in the performance reports that are sent to the league when they are evaluated.
“The guys say the supervisor will tell them one thing in the dressing room after the game then file something else with the league and the guys don’t have access to that,” he said. “The guys feel like they’re walking on egg shells all the time.”
Another source close to the negotiations maintained, however, that neither job security nor transparency has emerged as a negotiating issue.
The job security of NHL referees came into question when Dean Warren appealed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for reinstatement for his 2008 firing, claiming the reason for his dismissal was more due to his involvement in the NHLOA than his performance on the ice. At the time of his firing, he had been a vice president with the NHLOA. The league disputed the claim.