Mathieu Schneider was 20 when Montreal Canadiens teammate Ryan Walter first took him to an NHL Players’ Association meeting. Schneider had one NHL season under his belt and the visit opened his mind. “Every player comes into the league thinking ‘This is the way things are,’ that the rules never change,” he says. “But it’s all negotiated.”
That specific description of the PA was actually passed on to him many years later by the union’s current head, Don Fehr, when Schneider became the NHLPA’s special assistant to the executive director. In between, he carved out an exemplary NHL career, winning a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1993. His acumen as an offensive defenseman made him an asset for 10 franchises in 21 seasons.
Over that time, Schneider formed a lot of opinions about the game on the ice and outside the rink. He was an eight-time player rep on the NHLPA’s executive board and his post-career plans began taking shape during one of the union’s darkest periods: the short-lived reign of Ted Saskin, who was removed as head of the NHLPA for a litany of reasons, including allegations he spied on players’ emails and that he was improperly elected. The fallout was messy for a union that had just ousted another head in Bob Goodenow. “That took up a good two years,” Schneider says. “It really made me think I wanted to be a part of this organization and bring the pride back that we had in the 1990s that had gone out the window with Saskin.”
As you might imagine, Schneider feels far differently about the reign of Fehr. After all, he was part of the hiring committee that put baseball’s legendary player leader into the hockey post and has paid a lot of attention to the man’s methods. “We see each other as educators,” Schneider says. “It’s about getting a sense of where all the players are. Not just the stars, not just the leaders, but the young players and the old players, too. They’re the ones paying their dues on the ice every night. It should be their choice.”
That consensus building has been important. One of the reasons Schneider, who was officially hired in February 2011, is seen as an effective operator is the buy-in he’s been able to get from players on a number of issues and potential rule changes.
Grandfathering in mandatory visors was one such matter and Schneider’s experience as a player helped his judgment on the topic. He admits he had some close calls with eye injuries over the years and tried visors on a number of occasions. But as a player who wore a smaller helmet, the shields never fit properly and the equipment manager was always fiddling with his bucket to get the visor on. If he went long enough without one, it felt weird switching back. “I would almost get claustrophobic,” he says. “It might sound silly…and maybe it was all in my head.”
As the equipment industry progresses, sizing has become less of a problem with visors, but Schneider points to shoulder pads as having the opposite problem: the protective category has become so sophisticated players feel “invincible” and are more liable to hurt others by engaging in high-speed collisions.
And though the battle over goalie equipment sizing could have been vicious between the union’s netminders and the guys paid to score on them, Schneider says the new restrictions weren’t as controversial as expected. “Safety has to be No. 1 with us – and it is,” he says. “After that, guys want a level playing field. If I’m Jonathan Quick or Ryan Miller and I look down the ice and see the other guy wearing ‘cheater’ pads, I’d be upset.”
Schneider’s effectiveness navigating these issues has been noticed. “The Players’ Association is finally going about their work,” says one NHL agent. “He does a good job and he gets the players’ feedback on a lot of issues. I’ve never heard anything negative about Mathieu Schneider. He’s been a calm influence on the NHLPA.”
Along with building consensus among its players, the union’s main function is to negotiate with the league’s management and since the past lockout was resolved, things have been quiet, in the best possible sense of the word. That’s a big win for Schneider, who has seen enough off-ice upheaval over the years. “You have to give Don and Gary (Bettman) all the credit for that,” he says. “They’ve created a great relationship and that leadership trickles down to guys like me and Brendan Shanahan. We probably have an unprecedented level of communication right now. I just hope it’s the beginning of many years of uninterrupted hockey.”