NHL Labour Wars: Past, Present, and Their Implications
With the current lockout dragging on, I thought a 1967 labour dispute article I found would bring a little perspective to the evolution of the NHLPA and players' rights.
Earlier this year, Red Wings executive Jimmy Devellano called players "cattle." This was particularly true in the past. The NHL expected players to do exactly as ordered, or suffer.
For example, in 1925 the Hamilton Bulldogs went on strike for extra pay. The NHL had expanded the season that year from 24 to 30 games, but did not increase player salaries. Bulldogs players felt they were entitled to an extra $200 for the six games. Management refused, and told them they were under contract December 1 to March 30, regardless of pay or number of games. The team then refused to participate in the playoffs, despite their backpay being withheld and a threat to be disqualified from the playoffs. Finally, Calder disqualified them, and fined each player $200.
That September, the Hamilton franchise was officially revoked, and the players were purchased by Bill Dwyer for $75,000 to form the New York Americans. Ironically, he gave them pay raises, some as much as 200% of their previous salary.
Often in team and league histories, albeit official releases or news articles, the players are described as "sold" and "purchased." They don't say the players' contracts were purchased, but that the players were purchased. They were afforded no right in where they player, or even in what they were paid.
It wasn't until Ted Lindsay found out that the NHL pension plan was kept secret that the players' association really began to take off. Owners, who were used to having players under their thumb for their entire careers, were not happy when players began demanding a minimum wage and a better pension plan. Remember, the top salary for a player at the time was $25,000. Most players made far less and needed summer jobs to survive. Often, they had no more than a partial high school education and had to accept any work they could find.
And once your career was over, so was any support from the NHL. Doug Harvey lived in a railroad car after his career. With few skills outside of hockey, he barely eked out a living while battling bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Camille Henry battled epilepsy, alcoholism and diabetes, alone and broke. If it wasn't for assistance from the Emergency relief fund or the Alumni association, many more retired players would be in the same situation.
And yet, Lindsay's attempt to organise an "association" sputtered. Too many players feared punishment. They knew they could be traded to a less desirable team, exiled to the minors, or dismissed outright.
For his temerity in attempting to organise the players, Lindsay was first stripped of his captaincy, then traded to Chicago. On top of that, the league and Red Wings began rumours about Lindsay, even showing a false contract to the press with an inflated salary.
Even when the Ontario court ruled that more than 1,300 former NHL players were owed a $50-million surplus by the league's Pension Society, players still slipped through the cracks. Those who played in the 1970s and 1980s were especially hit hard. Paul Shmyr had nothing when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Bob Kelly had no insurance either, couldn't work, and nearly lost his home. Ed Johnston has had two strokes and still needs to work in order to pay his bills. His NHL pension: $12,000 a year, which he was still waiting to receive in 2010.
"Years ago I once sent a memo to all the player reps asking them to help," [Rene] Robert said. "I even had Don Cherry go on national TV and say the players should cough up $1,000 each to help the older guys. Not one [player rep.]replied. What's $1,000 to these guys? They lose that much in card games." (via Alan Maki) Current players contribute more than $2 million per year to the fund. If they decertify, the future of the pension plan is unstable.
Finally, in 1967, the NHLPA was formed with the help of Alan Eagleson. That's when the modern battle began and where this clip from the New York Times comes in:
There's some sort of lesson to be learned here, but I'm not going to belabour what journalists are already saying. Instead, I'm worried about the retired players, who struggled and fought and suffered to give future players a better career and life. I worry about the players who depend on the pension to survive.
The game is build on the backs of these players. While the paychecks and innovations of the game may be better now, it could have all changed if not for the pioneers beforehand. If the sacrifice of the players' union forefathers is forgotten in all of this, the point of their plight has been misappropriated and the fight now is merely squabbling over money-- not past and future player rights and safety.