SPORTS

Blowing the whistle

JAMES DEACON December 6 1993
SPORTS

Blowing the whistle

JAMES DEACON December 6 1993

Blowing the whistle

Considering the absurdly high salaries paid to modern professional athletes, there did not seem to be much money separating the National Hockey League and its striking on-ice officials last week. The 58 referees and linesmen skated off the job Nov. 15 to back their demand for improvements in non-salary benefits that would cost the NHL a yearly total of $1.5 million, then offered to accept less than half of that a week later. Yet the league stood fast, claiming that it had already made a generous offer. Bruce McNall, owner of the Los Angeles Kings, typified the owners’ stance when he ominously likened the dispute

to the 1981 U.S. air traffic controllers’ strike, which then-President Ronald Reagan crushed by firing the controllers and hiring replacements. By week’s end, talks had broken off and the message to the strikers was clear: take what is offered—or else.

How did once-amicable collective bargaining negotiations degenerate into a ref-clearing brawl? The NHL Officials Association conditionally accepted the league’s offer on salaries: a first-year referee’s pay would increase by 29 per cent to $65,000 a year; a first-year linesman’s would jump 26 per cent to $45,000. But the officials’ negotiator, Don Meehan, blows the whistle on commissioner Gary Bettman for not meeting him halfway on benefits demands. Meehan said that the rigors of hockey rarely allow NHLOA members to work beyond age 48, so such benefits as pensions and retirement severance are vital to them. However, the NHL’S chief negotiator,

senior vice-president Jeffrey Pash, said that the current offer addressed those issues: pension contributions would increase by 20 per cent in each of the first two years, and by 40 per cent in both the third and fourth years of the deal, and severance pay for retiring officials would grow to a maximum of $300,000 from $90,000. The officials may ask for more, Pash told Maclean’s, “but people shouldn’t wonder why the negotiations have bogged down as a result.”

Many observers saw the impasse as the league’s way of sending a costcontrol message to the players, who are also negotiating a new collective

agreement. Unlike their baseball, basketball and football counterparts, the 26 NHL teams do not have billions of television dollars from which to draw, yet they, too, have been paying skyrocketing player salaries. The owners have absorbed some of those increases in the last three years with the sale of five expansion franchises for $50 million each. But insiders fear that the league

cannot expand again without seriously diluting the player talent pool. Regardless, Pash claims that the owners’ dealings with the referees are “totally irrele-

vant” to negotiations

with players association boss Bob Goodenow, and added, “anyone who claims that we are sending a message to the players is wrong.”

The games, meanwhile, have gone on—after a fashion. With replacement officials wearing the black-and-white jerseys, the number of fights and stick fouls increased—along with complaints from players and coaches. “I didn’t know if it was a hockey game or a rodeo,” seethed St. Louis sniper Brett Hull after a particularly brutal outing against Vancouver. New York Islanders coach AI Arbour expressed concern that the inexperienced refs could not control rough play. “It’s getting to the boiling point,” he warned after a game in Dallas. “There was hitting from behind, things like that.” While the main combatants of the strike scrapped over money, the players had ample reason to hope for a speedy settlement.

JAMES DEACON