Unions on Ice

Hockey players have a brief, but fierce, history of demanding fair pay and equal rights from management.

GCSC / Flickr

The third installment of the World Cup of Hockey — a meaningless publicity stunt sponsored by the National Hockey League (NHL) and its owners, not the sport’s governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation — kicked off in mid September.

Despite what the league would have you believe, this tournament isn’t designed to grow the game. If it were, the entire schedule of play would not take place at the Air Canada Center in Toronto, home to the Maple Leafs — the second most successful team in NHL history — and the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s really about growing league coffers.

Revenue from the tournament is estimated to be $100 million, which will be split fifty-fifty between the NHL’s owners and players. An equal split sounds fair, but when you consider that the league consists of thirty owners and roughly seven hundred players, the math begins to look a little skewed. Of course this disparity won’t shock anyone with a passing familiarity with the NHL’s labor relations — the league boasts a rich history of greedy ownership endeavoring to hamstring its players’ bargaining rights.

The best-known — and perhaps the most egregious — version of this took place in 1957 when the Detroit Red Wings decided to ship star forward Ted Lindsay to the then-lousy Chicago Blackhawks after he proposed a players union. Lindsay and Montreal Canadiens stud defenseman Doug Harvey had the audacity to suggest ownership offer players retirement plans; Harvey, like Lindsay, was traded from the Canadiens to the New York Rangers as a direct result of his perceived disloyalty to ownership and the team.

These were not company men, so the owners had to make them examples.

NHL players wouldn’t get a proper union for another ten years, when the National Hockey League Players Association was founded in 1967. Even then, the league’s reserve clause prevented players from accessing true collective bargaining power.

This clause — like those that once existed in every major sports league — stated that once a player’s contract reached its end, that player had exactly one option: to sign another contract with the same team. This effectively gave players zero bargaining rights in contract negotiations because they were not allowed to speak with other franchises to see what the market might bear. Unless they chose to hold out for a season and lose an entire year’s pay, they were bound to the team that drafted them for their whole careers.

Whenever someone complains, “Players today just aren’t loyal like they used to be,” tell that person that it wasn’t loyalty that kept a player with one team for life, but an illegal contract.

Professional hockey’s labor movement needed a high-profile player to challenge the reserve clause system, and, in the early 1970s, there was no player more famous than the Blackhawks’ world-beating left-winger Bobby Hull. Like most NHL players, Hull was frustrated that he couldn’t negotiate better contract terms, so he joked that he’d jump from the NHL to the upstart World Hockey Association (WHA) if one of its teams paid him millions of dollars.

The Winnipeg Jets called his bluff, offering him a contract worth $1.75 million over the course of ten years, with a $1 million signing bonus tethered to the terms. Hull jumped.

The NHL pursued legal action, but a Philadelphia district court found the reserve clause illegal and gave Hull and his fellow players the right to sign with whichever team they pleased. This started a chain reaction in which sixty-odd players, including five from the Maple Leafs, defected to the WHA.

This enraged owner Harold Ballard, who had been a vocal opponent of the WHA since before it annihilated his roster. As I recently wrote in VICE Sports:

Ballard was sure the WHA would sputter and seize before it ever got running. At least that’s what Ballard hoped would happen — he was a very wealthy man with millions of (Canadian) dollars in assets at stake, and so competition in any form equaled a potentially bad business outcome. A panicky old man afraid of the inevitable and inexorable vice grip of change. Think your grandfather when the internet happened.

Ballard wanted top-tier players, but didn’t want to pay them. When they found a way around the league’s illegal labor practices, he doubled down on his contempt. As the NHL began entertaining the idea of merging with the WHA, Ballard became the league’s saltiest dissenter. From the Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1977:

Over my dead body will we merge with those bastards. They stole eighteen of my players in the last five years, they cost me $5 million in legal fees, and they screwed up hockey. They change owners every year over there, they change cities every two years, and now they want to change leagues. Let ’em die on their [own] and they will. If they want my vote to merge, or whatever the hell they want to do, they can forget it.

Over Ballard’s objections, the leagues eventually did merge — or, rather, the NHL absorbed four WHA teams — ushering free agency into hockey and granting players literal agency in contract negotiations.

Since then, the NHL has endured a strike and three lockouts. It is also the only major American or Canadian league to cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute.

It took the NHLPA twenty-five years to fight against league ownership. This probably had less to do with peaceful relations between the two bodies and more to do with the fact that corporate shill Alan Eagleson led the union. In 1992, he was forced to resign when players became wary of the chummy relationship he had with ownership. (Eagleson actually wound up in prison after being convicted of fraud and embezzlement six years later, forcing him to resign from the Hockey Hall of Fame as well. Good leader.)

Led by the newly instated NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow players called a strike for April 1, 1992, weeks before the play-offs were slated to begin.

The players timed their action to the postseason because owners rake in profits by inflating ticket prices and selling extra TV contracts. They demanded an increased share of this revenue and greater control over how their likenesses were used. The strike lasted just ten days: owners were terrified of losing their postseason boom. Players were granted larger play-off bonuses as part of the resolution.

In 1993–94, players went the entire season without a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The next year, they sought to establish a new agreement against owners who wanted to cap what they believed were skyrocketing player salaries.

The players rejected the salary cap, so the league and its owners — emboldened by second-year commissioner Gary Bettman, who mandated that owners enhance league revenues (i.e., make ownership wealthier still) — proposed a luxury tax that would penalize teams that went over a proposed level.

Players justifiably recognized this as a different version of the salary cap. When an agreement on the CBA could not be reached, a lockout ensued, resulting in the loss of 468 games. This hurt players because they lost half a year’s salary, but it hurt owners a lot more. It was a minor win for labor — if a major loss for people who like to watch hockey.

A new CBA was finally settled, and a shortened season — just forty-eight games and play-offs — eventually took place. That CBA would run out ten years later, leading to the next major labor dispute between NHL ownership and players.

This would be the big one, as the entire 2004–5 season was cancelled. Owners raised their old gripe — “Players make too much money!” — and suggested a system of “cost certainty.” Bettman claimed the league was losing money, and this was the only way to safeguard it against extinction.

The NHLPA, still led by Goodenow, called foul on Bettman’s and ownership’s claims of financial hardship, correctly suspecting that ownership and their commissioner might be exaggerating. It argued that cost certainty simply rebranded the salary cap.

The two sides took more than ten months to settle. The resulting contract ultimately weakened players’ bargaining rights because it gave into the salary cap.

The NHL would lockout again in 2012–13. The players, led by Donald Fehr — you might remember him from the 1994–95 baseball strike — wanted revenue-sharing, while ownership and the league, still led by Bettman, again fought to pay the players less.

In the end, they reached a deal that slightly increased the salary cap and slightly decreased the maximum length of contracts. These were minor concessions for both sides, and so effectively functioned as a wash. The season resumed as it did in 1994–95, with forty-eight games and play-offs. And the NHLPA maintained its healthy distrust of ownership.

Players haven’t always won in negotiations with the NHL, but that they’re able to engage in these negotiations in the first place is due in large part to the fact that players like Hull, Lindsay, and Harvey decided to challenge an illegal system of labor.