THE NHLPA: POSTURING FOR NEXT SUMMER?

by Ron Spence

The Skeptic’s brow levitates a few notches.

He remembers how the new National Hockey Association, in 1909, drove up players’ salaries – paying Cyclone Taylor some $5250 per season and making him the highest paid athlete in the World – per game, that is. The Renfrew Millionaire’s star had abandoned the old Ottawa Senators, and his new stipend exceeded baseball’s Ty Cobb.

He also remembers Derek Sanderson’s World Hockey Association salary in 1972. The former Bruin signed an agreement with the new league’s Miami Screaming Eagles, which would pay him $2.6 million per year, making him – per season this time – the highest-paid athlete in the world. He had surpassed soccer’s Brazilian superstar, Pele.

The Skeptic summarizes that new, rival leagues with deep pockets, drive up NHL salaries.

And now, the new Continental Hockey League, the KLH, is recruiting and have offered Pittsburgh’s Evgini Malkin a whopping $12.5 million – tax-free – to play in Europe.

It’s like deja vu all over again, the Skeptic groans.

Not that current NHL salaries need a rival league to push them up. Salaries have progressively climbed since the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed on July 22, 2005.

The NHL average was $1.46 million during the first post-lockout campaign (Each team’s cap was then $39 million.) and had risen nearly half a million per year – to just over $1.9 million (The salary cap was $50.3 million last, and will be $56.7 million this season.) by last winter.

These salaries mirror a rise in NHL income, which is what both the players and owners had negotiated.

The Skeptic understands that competition makes good business. And he understands why the players would like the option of moving to a rival league.

“It gives some of our guys another place to play,” Paul Kelly, director of the NHL Players’ Association, said last week. “It gives them some leverage they might not otherwise have, which is to present to their NHL teams that they have a competing offer from a KHL team and maybe improve their bargaining position.”

This is fair enough, the Skeptic shrugs. After all, a team can stop negotiations with one player and sign another. The owners can’t expect to have it both ways.

But, the Skeptic is bothered. The NHLPA are meddling, he thinks, trying to have it both ways.

“The announcement by the IIHF that they have suspended certain players from international competition has no basis in fact or law and constitutes a violation of the rights of these players,” Kelly said a few days ago.

The players in question are Alex Radulov, Nikita Filatov, Viktor Tikhonov, Jason Krog, Tomas Mojzis and Fedor Fedorov.

All six players are looking to transfer to the new league.

“The affected players are being unfairly singled out in a dispute between the NHL and the KHL,” Kelly continued, “over whether to respect each others’ contracts.”

Kelly concluded by stating that the NHLPA  would be taking legal action against the IIHF’s “unilateral action”.

What bothers the Skeptic is: the Players’ Association seems to be condoning contract busting, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement is itself a contract; and, the players’ union is providing the rival league with more leverage, besides their higher salaries, to compete with the NHL.

It’s like, the Skeptic analogizes, a butcher negotiating a really good wage, and then telling his bosses’ competitors where to buy the best cuts for less money.

But, something else has the Skeptic really worried.

What if this posturing is a sign of things to come?

The players have the option, rather than completing their six year contract, of renegotiating the Collective Bargaining Agreement next summer.

And will the NHLPA, the Skeptic grimaces, be using the IIHF’ stance and the KLH’s high salaries to start a labour war?

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