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What are the key issues facing new NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh in the next CBA?

Craig Morgan Avatar
February 17, 2023

The National Hockey League Players’ Association announced Thursday that the executive board had unanimously appointed Martin J. Walsh as NHLPA Executive Director following a nine-month, player-led search.

Walsh succeeds Donald Fehr who has held the NHLPA top post since Dec. 18, 2010. 

The 10-player NHLPA search committee consisted of Ian Cole (Tampa Bay Lightning), Mattias Ekholm (Nashville Predators), Justin Faulk (St. Louis Blues), Sam Gagner (Winnipeg Jets), Zach Hyman (Edmonton Oilers), Kyle Okposo (Buffalo Sabres), Nate Schmidt (Winnipeg Jets), Kevin Shattenkirk (Anaheim Ducks), Jacob Trouba (New York Rangers) and James van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia Flyers).

Walsh, 55, most recently served as the Secretary of Labor in President Joe Biden’s administration. He was the mayor of Boston from 2014 to 2021. He also spent 16 years serving in the Massachusetts House or Representatives.

Per the NHLPA release, Walsh has a long history as a union member and labor leader. He joined Laborers Local 223 in Boston at 21 years old, and eventually became its president. In 2011, he was appointed as the head of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council.

“My years of experience in the labor movement and in public life have taught me that the job is never about me. It’s about us,” Walsh said in a statement. “It’s about the people we serve so I look forward to working with players and the NHLPA staff to make the NHLPA the best and most effective team we can be to advance and protect the interests of our players and their families.”

The NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was set to expire on Sept. 15, 2022, but the terms of the current agreement were extended through the 2025-26 season as part of the return to play negotiations back in July 2020.

With Walsh’s appointment official, PHNX Sports reached out to a dozen players, former players and agents to ask them a simple question, under the condition of anonymity. 

When the current CBA expires, what do you think will be the biggest issues on the table for the NHLPA and the players?

Here are their answers in raw form (we’ll dive deeper into these issues when it becomes relevant). We have avoided identifying the sources as players, former players or agents to further protect their anonymity.

New NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House on Sept. 15, 2022. The NHLPA named Walsh its new executive director on Thursday. (Getty Images)

NHLPA issues in the next CBA

One source: “One is the labor issues and what moves the league and the commissioner might try to make to adjust the system, whether it’s a percentage of hockey related revenue battle, or whether the players have the fortitude and support of owners to try to carve out some type of scenario where teams can have a player or a group of players outside the cap. The system we have right now has really stigmatized hockey and hockey’s entertainment value because of teams’ ability to be able to build or keep a team together.”

Another source: “The biggest one in my mind is the cost of health insurance. Normally, the employer at least picks up a 50 percent share of that, if not more. The employees do contribute to it, but that is usually a shared expense between employer and employee. In this case, the health insurance program for the players comes entirely out of the player share of hockey related revenue. Another issue for me is the pension plan for the players.”

Another source: “I think it’s the continued fight to include more team/league revenues for hockey related revenue purposes to continue to drive the revenue growth.” 

Another source: “I’d say it’s too early to know what the real standouts will be but I’m sure it will be a battle. I’d like to think it should go smoothly but I’ve been through too many to believe that. It’s always ugly.”

Another source: “Off the top of my head, the hard cap is one, although that would be a major issue. A soft cap, the players would like, I’m guessing. Rookie contracts are not great. They should be able to make more than they do. They’re not on par with other leagues. Maybe [a different] revenue split: 55 (players)-45?”

Another source: “The playoff format is something I heard the players don’t like. The 1-8 seeding system in the conferences is more fair I think.” 

Another source: “Some game changes. I would look into putting the red line back in. It takes away the ping-pong game we are seeing at times. It also may protect D a bit more by not getting run over at top speed all the time. Also, get rid of the trapezoid. It’s another good way to help protect D. Eliminate the Michigan. It’s a safety issue for me. How do you defend a puck being carried on a stick? You have to slash or jab at a stick that is going to be near head height. The first guy to receive an accidental broken jaw will be what they wait for.”

Another source: “It’s always cap and escrow — that’s always the issue — but I think they have done a good job with making the league younger so the one thing is, most young players don’t focus on the CBA because it’s a lot of monotony and tedious things so I don’t see much changing. I think players need to have more control and freedom over marketing and advertising, whether it’s personal or for the team, kind of like the NBA.”

Another source: “I still think the biggest issue is how do we continue to grow the game and increase our revenues? The NBA just topped $10 billion in revenues. What can be done with the league and the players working together to grow worldwide with the NBA as a reference point? The triple hard cap and 50/50 splits means that the smaller labor issues like medical, pension and system should be worked out. Another issue that could be addressed is a mechanism to soften escrow exposure if there are year-to-year dips, similar to what we just did to soften the exposure of the pandemic.”

Another source: “I think it will be escrow, with this contract having it capped at a certain percentage… the year after the contract ends… escrow is unknown.” 

Another source: “The other end of this is the big question. The National Hockey League is the weak sister of every team sport in North America from a revenue standpoint. There’s got to be some mechanisms where there’s more pressure on teams, and there’s more pressure on the league to raise revenue. We should be an $8 billion sport today, but right now, we’re a $5 billion sport. We wouldn’t have to talk about a lot of hardcore labor issues, per se, if league revenue was always increasing. So it’s just going to be really important that there becomes a real partnership, not a cursory partnership, to raise revenue so everyone benefits from it.”

Another source: “I think the next revenue wave here is streaming revenue. My understanding is that one of the reasons why ESPN wanted to get back into hockey was that the demographics of hockey fans are much greater for streaming than MLB fans because it’s a much younger group. But now with Bally’s falling on its ass and probably going to bankruptcy, what’s going to replace that revenue? Our hockey related revenues for the next couple years were based on income that everyone thought that the teams would be getting as part of that pot. Now, if that goes to bankruptcy court, it could be pennies on the dollar. What do they do? How do they pivot? A lot of leagues are going to streaming. A lot of leagues might be going to Google or Amazon or whatever. It just takes creative business people that understand new media and understand where new media hits the road with real revenue.”

Another source: “One thing that I think the players need to be talking about is the schedule with this huge amount of games in a compressed amount of days. I think multi-game series in one city would help. I think better spacing of games would help. I’m not sure there’s an appetite for extending the season on either end to help space out the games, though.”   

Top photo via Getty Images: New NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh (center) served on President Joe Biden’s cabinet

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