The NHL Players’ Association has reorganized, ousting a cartel of cooperation led by the deposed Paul Kelly and setting the stage for Bob Goodenow-style hardliners to assume control in advance of the current CBA’s expiration on Sept. 15, 2011.
That’s not good news.
Hockey has long been its own worst enemy. In this case, NHL players just refuse to accept hockey’s status as a fringe sport. It’s not the NFL, MLB or even the NBA. TV ratings, in fact, give the nod to the World Series of Poker. The NHL isn’t New York. It’s Saskatoon. Hockey players tend to forget that.
NHL superstars are quite happy with their level of pay even though Oliver Perez makes more than Sidney Crosby. Within the context of the revenue produced by hockey, the Crosbys, Malkins and Ovechkins do fine. They are fairly compensated.
Fading older players are reportedly behind the union’s new-found militancy. Veterans who thought they could make $2 million per year indefinitely are being offered 500K, take it or leave it. Younger, hungrier options are readily available. If Philippe Boucher leaves it, Ben Lovejoy takes it.
A lot of these veterans are retiring. But they’re not happy. Other vets not far from this crossroads are girding the NHLPA’s collective loins in preparation for battle.
Kelly was seen as too cozy with the owners. He wanted to tweak the CBA, sure, but was never going to call for a strike. The militants want that threat. Re-hiring Goodenow, who resigned after the 2004-05 season was lost, may actually be a possibility.
The current CBA works. It enabled Alex Goligoski to get a three-year deal worth $1.83 million per despite having just 48 NHL games under his belt. It allowed Rob Scuderi to parlay one good playoff into a four-year contract worth $3.4m per. Players at every level get appropriate remuneration.
But, as in the NFL, washed-up veterans get replaced. They’re the only victims. So they’re the ones trying to seize control. These guys made their money. But they want more.
NHLPA Interim Executive Director Ian Penny stands accused of insulting Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and Phoenix part-owner Wayne Gretzky. How insanely myopic. Lemieux and Gretzky were at the forefront of hockey’s big-money era. The revenue they generated for their brethren could fill a fleet of Brinks trucks. Are Lemieux and Gretzky suddenly sellouts because they own teams?
Consider some of Lemieux’s actions since buying the Penguins. He made sure every player owed deferred money got it, something he could have easily dodged via the franchise’s bankruptcy. The Penguins are a spending club, with a payroll near the cap max.
Some NHLPA members are in a tizzy because players did not receive full escrow payments at season’s end.

Because player compensation is based on a percentage of revenue, NHL players see a percentage of salaries paid into escrow. When the season concludes, final revenue is calculated. If revenue reaches projections, the players get everything in escrow, plus interest. If revenue comes up short of projections, the players don’t get their full escrow payment.
Revenues, unfortunately, weren’t as expected in 2008-09. Reports say the players lost 17 percent of their salaries.
That’s rough, but…
The economy tanked. The players get 57 percent of hockey-related revenue. That’s a lot. The owners certainly weren’t happy when the money came up short. They got less, too.
The majority of players benefit from the CBA. The majority should control the union. But the happy generally aren’t militant. Haves can only look bad campaigning against have-nots, even when the so-called have-nots have previously made millions.
The union has the right to extend the CBA by one year, pushing the expiration date back to Sept. 15, 2012. We’ll know who’s in charge when that decision gets made. If the NHLPA’s entire rank and file voted, the extension would doubtless be ratified. But sports unions tend to be run by the squeaky wheels.
This could get bad. Hockey got lucky when it survived the 2004-05 lockout. It might survive losing another season, but the result could be a severely downsized league bereft of credibility.