Individual acts undermining union's argument

Updated: October 28, 2004, 3:29 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Ah yes, principles.

In a pitched battled with the league's owners over a new collective bargaining agreement, NHL players have, for the most part, presented a strong, united front that suggests it will be a very long time, if ever, before the players' association cracks.

That said, there have been confusing messages emanating from individual players as they grapple with being locked out of work and prevented from collecting salaries, with the average yearly NHL paycheck now at about $1.8 million per season.

In a fight that is said to largely about principle -- the players union insists it will not be forced to accept a salary cap or any system that links revenues to salaries -- a variety of players have expressed their personal principles:

Ed Belfour
Ed Belfour doesn't mind owning a team in a league with a salary cap, but he won't play for one.
• More than 200 players have gone overseas to find work, taking the jobs of other non-NHL personnel in a variety of European countries. In some cases, NHLers have taken those jobs while working for nominal salaries or, in some cases, no salary at all.

• Several established NHLers have stayed in North America and joined pro leagues, again jobs that would be held by other athletes if the NHL wasn't in a lockout. The most notable of these players is Dean McAmmond, who was on the roster of the Stanley Cup finalist Calgary Flames last spring and this season signed with the Albany River Rats, the top farm club of the New Jersey Devils.

• Maple Leafs goaltender Ed Belfour bought equity in a World Hockey Association team based in Dallas despite the fact that team would operate with a salary cap. So far, the league has not managed to get off the ground.

• In Toronto on Tuesday, players like Chris Pronger, Tony Amonte and Mike Modano posed in their NHL uniforms for a Reebok commercial. In other industries, locked-out employees would generally refuse to be associated in any way, shape or form with the company during a work stoppage.

• NHL teams are reporting a slow increase in the number of players reporting lingering injury problems from last season. Injured players receive their NHL paychecks until they are cleared to play. Toronto forward Tie Domi, having been given a clean bill of health after a hip injury, now says he has a hand problem.

As well, a series of players have made public statements at variance with the union's official line, including Steve Thomas, John Madden, Juraj Kolnik and Mike Ribeiro. Thomas, Madden and Ribeiro all seemed to indicate the players may need to consider a salary cap system of some kind, although both Thomas and Madden claimed their statements were misinterpreted.

Kolnik, meanwhile, was quoted as saying he might be willing to work as a replacement player if the NHL opens its doors next fall without a new CBA in place with the players' union. The next day, the 23-year-old Slovak also claimed he had been misquoted, or more specifically, that he didn't understand English well enough to answer the questions that had been posed to him in the interview.

Ribeiro, meanwhile, said he supported the concept of individual salary limits, a position the union has thus far rejected.

Calgary defenseman Mike Commodore, currently playing in the American Hockey League with the Lowell Lockmonsters, offered the strongest comments yet, saying yesterday that the union has to seriously consider the viability of a salary cap to get back to work.

"I'll risk the slap on the wrist," Commodore told a Calgary radio station. "I don't want to spend however long my career lasts playing here in the American Hockey League.

"If (a salary cap) is what it takes -- and the game has to go on -- then I'm going to say, 'yeah.'"

Moreover, it's hard for the union to argue forcefully that fighting against a salary cap and for a "free market" is a non-negotiable point of principle at the same time players are willing to work for wealthy entrepreneurs in other countries for a fraction of their NHL earnings.
It is against this backdrop that the 30 player reps will convene in Toronto next week to meet with the union's executive committee and take the temperature of the membership at a time when there have been no CBA talks in more than six weeks. Earlier this week, NHL Players' Association senior director Ted Saskin met informally with NHL vice president Bill Daly, but there is no indication if and when formal talks may begin.

The public perception that has been created in the past few weeks is that while the union as a group appears rock solid and without significant dissension, particularly from high-profile players, there are fissures being created within the union over certain issues that could grow larger over time.

For example, its seems unlikely a third- or fourth-line player making less than the NHL average salary and currently sitting unemployed at home would have been buoyed by Peter Forsberg's decision to sign with a Swedish club team for the rest of the season, regardless of whether the NHL resumes play or not.

Basically, Forsberg is absenting himself from the fight until the two sides have worked everything out.

Commodore seemed to express the feeling of some of the rank-and-file by saying the bottom 20 percent of the union's membership isn't represented by the fight against a salary cap.

"The thing is, you look at the (union) and who's in charge ... it's all the guys who have made $30 million playing the game," he said. "If there's never another game of hockey, and if they never make another cent from the NHL, they're going to be alright.

"There's lots of guys in my shoes that if we miss a couple of years, that's a huge deal."

Some reports suggest players like Ilya Kovalchuk are playing in the Russian league for salaries well in excess of $1 million. There have been no reports of players working in Europe donating all or part of their income to the union's strike/lockout fund.

As committed as the union appears to be to waging a long fight, it seems dozens and dozens of players have little stomach for doing so on an individual basis. On those occasions when players have spoken out in a manner that is in contradiction to union positions, there has been the appearance, at least, that they have been strongarmed by the union into recanting their comments.

That means little as long as NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow and his top player lieutenants maintain an iron grip on the union's negotiating position, but it seems clear the decisions of players to bolt for jobs in North America and the fact some players are taking different positions in public from the union can do nothing but undermine the organization.

Moreover, it's hard for the union to argue forcefully that fighting against a salary cap and for a "free market" is a non-negotiable point of principle at the same time players are willing to work for wealthy entrepreneurs in other countries for a fraction of their NHL earnings.

The fact is that NHLers are willing to work for less, regardless of the financial position of owners in these leagues. Still, the union wants NHL owners to be viewed as unfair employers for proposing a new system that would still pay players an average of $1.4 million per season or more, far in excess of that which can generally be earned overseas.

When a major star like Joe Thornton is willing to play for a wealthy Swiss team for $250,000 a season plus a cut of merchandising revenue, it sends out a confusing message as to exactly what the union is fighting for in this labor war.

Not the Commodores of the world, apparently.

None of the other sports -- baseball, football or basketball -- have seen players skip off to other countries for work when those leagues were shut down by labor disputes.

It has created an unusual backdrop to the NHL lockout, one further complicated by issues like Belfour's decision to buy a WHA team and players willingly doing business under the logos of their individual teams.

Part of this labor battle has been a scuffle for public sympathy. With such confusing messages, it's not hard to see why the players union isn't winning that battle despite the fact the players have already offered to take a five percent, across-the-board cut in pay and made other concessions to the NHL.

Then again, the battle within may be the union's toughest fight.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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