The NHL Players' Association shot down the NHL's realignment proposal that included four conferences. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
Let me see if I have this straight. Without as much of an ounce of advance input from its Players’ Association, the NHL devises a significant realignment structure which it fully knows affects the terms and conditions of the players’ employment, then announces to the world it’s a done deal before getting the union’s approval on it.
Are we good so far? Fine. Then it imposes a deadline for the players to accept the changes and when the players refuse to do that, it declares the plan dead. Then, just for kicks and giggles, it says the league doesn’t even need the union to sign off on the scheme, but essentially allows the NHLPA to derail it anyway.
And the players are the ones who are being duplicitous and unreasonable here? Just checking.
This comes from a league head office that claims it doesn’t actually need the players’ approval to impose mandatory facial protection, then doesn’t do it despite the fact it is knowingly putting millions of dollars in assets at risk by giving players the freedom to choose the safety equipment in which they work.
Well, the NHL should either grow some and follow through on its visions or deal with the consequences and quit whining. The fact the league has to deal with a union should not come as a shock to those who run things in New York. The fact that union is full of people who earn an average salary of about $2 million per year doesn’t make the dynamic of dealing with it any different than the United Auto Workers or Screen Actors Guild. The purpose and goals of a union (or association) remain the same regardless of the size of the paycheck.
And really, did anyone actually expect anything different when Don Fehr came on board as the executive director of the NHLPA? The reason the players hired him in the first place is they felt they needed someone who could stand up to management and provide an authoritative foil to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. So in his first real test as leader of the union, he makes a bold statement such as this one and people are surprised?
Just because Fehr is the executive director of the NHLPA doesn't mean his concern is to do what's best for hockey. That has to be part of his vision to be sure because a healthy, prosperous game benefits his membership, but nobody should confuse that with his No. 1, overarching objective, which is to get the best possible deal for the players who employ him.
Fehr doesn’t care what you, I, Bettman or anyone else thinks of him. His primary concern has always been his constituents and if stonewalling this proposal gives the players some extra chips in the next round of collective bargaining, Fehr is simply doing his job. And you can be assured if the players aren’t happy with the job he’s doing, they’ll simply pay him a huge severance package and kick him to the curb. In case you haven’t noticed, they have a fairly well documented history of doing that.
I want you to ask yourself a question and please be 100 percent honest: You’re the member of a union where you work and roughly nine months prior to your collective bargaining agreement expiring, the owners of the company come up with a plan to change the shifts. It has its merits, but also affects your working conditions. Keeping in mind that you have to sit across the bargaining table from these same people in less than a year and you already know the employer is going to be looking for significant clawbacks, do you accept the changes without protest or would you want to use them as potential leverage in collective bargaining?
I guess the more direct question is, would you take one for the team and accept a proposal you hope will create goodwill with your employer, but be viewed as a pushover when the bargaining gets more serious? Or would you rather assert your authority and make it clear to your employer that your voice matters?
There are those who believe the NHLPA has fired the first shot across the bow of the league by refusing to accept this realignment proposal for flimsy reasons and that it will lead to another labor Armageddon in the coming months. And they may be right. The players know they will never win the public relations war in this negotiation, that they’ll always be perceived as pampered millionaires who are getting rich playing a game most hockey fans think they would play for free.
Are the players using this as a negotiating ploy? Almost certainly they are. The most surprising thing about it is that people seem to be shocked by it.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.