CANADA/COVER

A COSTLY FACEOFF

AFTER THE PLAYERS STRIKE, THE NHL FACES A STRUGGLE TO RESTORE THE FAITH OF ITS FANS

JAMES DEACON April 13 1992
CANADA/COVER

A COSTLY FACEOFF

AFTER THE PLAYERS STRIKE, THE NHL FACES A STRUGGLE TO RESTORE THE FAITH OF ITS FANS

JAMES DEACON April 13 1992

A COSTLY FACEOFF

CANADA/COVER

AFTER THE PLAYERS STRIKE, THE NHL FACES A STRUGGLE TO RESTORE THE FAITH OF ITS FANS

For the first time in its 75 years, all of the National Hockey League’s players were on strike and the fate of the proud institution was the subject of national debate. Suddenly, Wayne Gretzky’s salary, playing-card revenues and the mood in the sports bars competed for the attention of citizens with premiers meeting on the Constitution and the perilous state of the economy.

But by week’s end, powerful financial and emotional forces were at work in the hockey world, aimed at a quick settlement this week. Behind the scenes, a group of owners was working to bring about an agreement that would allow Canada’s rite of spring to continue. Their ranks included Calgary native Norm Green, owner of the Minnesota North Stars, who is close to his players and advocates radical reform of the way owners and players would operate under a new contract (page 19). For players, the breakdown of talks threatened playoff bonuses and the championship dreams of the division-winning New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens. And whatever the outcome of a Monday meeting of the NHL board of governors in New York City, the strike irrevocably changes the relationship between players and owners.

A more immediate concern was that the costly faceoff denied millions of Canadians the game they love at a time when their interest is at its peak. For fans, the playoffs are eight weeks of sudden-death hockey, the steaming-hot main course after a regular season of lukewarm appetizers. For the players, the playoffs are their greatest test, their reason for competing. Explained Robert Dirk, a 25-year-old defenceman with the Vancouver Canucks: “The little kid in every one of us is saying this is wrong. The playoffs are coming; spring is here. We should be on the ice, playing hockey. We grew up playing this game because we loved it, and that’s the bottom line.” But the players still went on strike.

Resolute: Despite a 58-per-cent increase in their average salaries over the past two years, the players were resolute last week in their bid not only to ratify a new collective agreement, but also to forge an entirely new business relationship with their employers. Before the negotiations broke down, the sides had agreed on limited free agency, a four-game extension to the regular season, increases in playoff bonuses and the amount the

teams will contribute to the pension pool. During several meetings after the strike began, NHL president John Ziegler and NHL Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow met in Toronto to explore ways of settling key unresolved issues. Among them were licensing arrangements, particularly the owners’ attempt to gain a share of $11 million in player association revenues from trading cards; the owners’ proposed use of pension surpluses; and the length of the collective agreement.

Los Angeles Kings captain Wayne Gretzky

‘There’ll be no sympathy for our side. There’ll be no sympathy for the owners.

The sport will be tarnished.’

Of the 564 members of the players association, the one with the most to lose from a strike was Wayne Gretzky. The reigning Los Angeles King commands the league’s highest salary—$3.1 million annually—and he stood to lose $16,666.67 per day of the regular season. As well, since his trade from Edmonton in 1988, the Great One has developed a close friendship and business relationship with the Kings’ owner, Bruce McNall. Together, they own race horses, a majority of the Toronto Argonauts football club and rare sports memorabilia. But Gretzky maintained his solidarity with his teammates.

Gretzky said that the players knew their decision to strike would not be popular. “I understand where the fans are coming from,” he said. “I know there’ll be no sympathy for our side. There’ll be no sympathy for the owners. There’ll be no sympathy either way. The sport will be tarnished.” For Gretzky, the issue comes down to taking a stand to protect hockey players’ interests in the future. He cited the problems faced by past greats, including his friend Gordie Howe and Montreal Canadiens star Jean Beliveau, who played 25 and 18 years, respectively, but whose pension now pays them each only $12,000 a year. Said Gretzky: “I hear oldtimers complaining because, when they played 30 years ago, they didn’t have a good pension plan. We are not going to be complaining 30 years from now. We are doing it now.”

At their scheduled home game on April 2 against the Calgary Flames,

the Vancouver Canucks had planned a bannerraising ceremony to honor the team’s first-ever Smythe Division title. The Canucks, whose run of mediocrity since joining the NHL in 1970 was interrupted only by the team’s unlikely finish as Stanley Cup runners-up in 1981, finally achieved true contender status this season. That, says Trevor Linden, the 21-year-old Canuck captain and leading scorer, made the decision to go on strike even worse. Outside the Pacific Coliseum after the strike deadline had passed, the six-foot, four-inch native of Medicine Hat, Alta., who earns $800,000 a year, stood among a throng of kids and, in the mould of Howe and Bobby Hull,

signed autographs until the last youngster was happy. But Linden was not. He and the other Canucks had just begun the first strike of their lives. “No one ever wanted to be in this situation,” he told Maclean’s. “It’s difficult for everyone to accept.”

Claim: The trading-card issue was particularly irksome to Linden. He said that his concern was not primarily about the amount of money gained from selling the rights to use the players’ images on the cards—estimated to be $11 million annually. It was that the players association used those revenues to fund its operations. By placing a claim over those reve-

‘No one ever wanted to be in this situation. It’s difficult for everyone to accept.’

‘We are hockey players first. That is our life. There is nothing I like more than being on the ice in the playoffs’

TREVOR LINDEN, Vancouver Canucks captain

GUY CARBONNEAU, Montreal Canadiens captain

nues in their final offer, the team owners appeared to be trying to undercut the union. “What has to be remembered,” Linden said, “is that three years ago those rights were worth only $400,000. Since we have taken it in-house, licensing has blossomed.”

Guy Carbonneau, 32, is the epitome of his team, the Canadiens. The tireless centre from Sept-Iles, on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River, combines tenacious defence and a surprising scoring touch with a fearless commitment to the winning tradition of his team. Now the captain, Carbonneau is paid $925,000, and he understands that people are puzzled by his decision to go on strike against such a deep-pocketed employer. But money, he said, is not the issue that caused the stalemate. “A lot of money issues were settled last week, like free agency and that sort of thing,” Carbonneau said in an interview. “It was left almost the way it was before—we gave in on that, and a lot of the guys weren’t happy.”

Excitement: “What would make the guys happy is to play hockey. We are hockey players first,” Carbonneau said. “That is our life. There is nothing I like more than being on the ice in the playoffs. That’s where the

excitement is, for us and for the fans. We have worked all winter to get to this point. And the Stanley Cup—that is the greatest feeling in the world for a hockey player.” Carbonneau said he hoped that, by standing up for themselves, the players were finally earning a

partnership with owners in the hockey business. “In 20 years,” he added, “hockey players are either going to say, ‘Thanks to those old guys for being tough,’ or they’re going to say, ‘Those guys sure screwed things up.’ We will have to wait and see.”

When the NHL strike became official last week, there was little public evidence of a spirit of compromise. As Vancouver president Pat Quinn remarked ruefully, “The lines are drawn in cement.” But former Montreal star Beliveau, whose brilliant NHL career was marked as much by his grace as by his talent, watched the proceedings from a distance with a note of cautious optimism about the future. Now senior vice-president of the Canadiens, Beliveau said that the league needed to work with the players association, not against it. He said that some owners may have been slow to recognize that, but they are changing. “It’s important that both sides present their cases strongly,” he said, “but it’s just as important that they understand the other guy’s position.” On reflection, he added, that might also be useful advice for Quebec and Canada.

STRIKE COUNTDOWN

June 13 and 14,1991: First talks in Toronto; owners claim soaring salaries could kill NHL; players call for total free agency and no entry draft.

Sept. 15, 1991: Collective agreement expires.

Sept. 24 and 25,1991: Owners revise proposals; union suspends talks to consult players.

Jan. 1,1992: Bob Goodenow, NHLPA’s deputy director, replaces Alan Eagleson as executive director.

Feb. 24: Talks in New York City.

March 9: Deadlock over free agency and entry draft. March 13: Two sides discuss league’s finances in Toronto.

March 20: Goodenow sets March 30 strike deadline. March 24: Talks resume in Toronto.

March 28: Owners make “final offer.”

March 29: Players’ counter-proposal rejected.

March 30: Players delay deadline.

April 2: Players strike after rejecting owners’ offer. April 2, 3,4: NHL president John Ziegler holds talks with Goodenow.

JAMES DEACON

HAL QUINN