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Linden to dad: 'Maybe I can make a difference'

2/3/2005

None of Trevor Linden's colleagues would have complained if he simply said, thanks but no thanks.

Instead, the longtime Vancouver Canucks center, a serious and sensitive soul, accepted a fourth term as president of the NHL Players' Association last year, and now finds himself in the middle of contentious collective bargaining negotiations, flying hither and yon to meetings in airport lounges and secret locations while fighting a losing public relations battle.

Why?

"I quizzed him on that," Linden's father Lane told ESPN.com this week. "I said, 'Trevor, you're kind of sticking your [expletive] in the grinder aren't you?' He said, 'Dad, I can learn a lot.' He said, 'Maybe I can make a difference.'"

Linden circumvented protocol two weeks ago by asking for an informal meeting with Harley Hotchkiss, chairman of the NHL's board of governors, and excluding their leaders, NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in an effort to facilitate the bargaining process. The talks have yet to produce an agreement, but they did open lines of communication that had broken off since mid-December.

If a new CBA is reached in time to save a portion of the 2004-05 season, Linden will deserve much of the credit. If the season is canceled, he will be lauded for taking the process further than imagined.

"I think he's gone above and beyond in trying to get a deal done," veteran forward Travis Green said. "If the car's not for sale you can't buy it, and we might be up against that right now. I would tell him myself, 'Sleep well at night Trevor, you've done a helluva job.' "

Hall of Fame forward Mike Gartner was in Linden's position during the last lockout, 10 years ago. During that 103-day ordeal there was ongoing dialogue between the players and the owners, a sense of give and take.

This time, the league is embroiled in the longest work stoppage in its history and is flirting with becoming the first professional league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. Each party is entrenched firmly on either side of a salary cap, an economic system that will dramatically alter the business of the game. Long periods of stony silence and a pervasive sense of pessimism also have contributed to dramatically altering the dynamics of the situation and the role of the NHLPA president, Gartner said.


Former NHL goaltender Glenn Healey agreed.

"It's tougher on Trevor than probably any other president before him because the money is so great the stakes are higher," he said. "Trevor is dealing with a lot of different issues. He puts a lot of fires out."

Healy, a player representative from the late 1980s until his retirement in 2001, currently serves as a trustee for the players' pension fund. He praised Linden for accepting -- and especially keeping -- a job that has few rewards but plenty of shortcomings, like no salary.

"It's a difficult job. You don't get a lot of guys wanting to do it," he said.

Knowing the ins and outs of the CBA and having a full understanding of each side's proposals and the implications seem simple compared to the occupational hazards.

Players who assume prominent roles in the association sometimes have experienced strained relations with their owners and management. Healey said he knows some players who were traded because of it. And as the face of the association, those players often bear the brunt of the public's perception of players as greedy and overpaid, especially during labor negotiations.

Linden, a 16-year veteran who was scheduled to make $2 million this season, just $200,000 more than last season's league average, has avoided those pitfalls but faces others.

Because this is the first work stoppage for most NHLers, he spends considerable time answering questions from frustrated players, now scattered across the globe.

He is also saddled with the burden of being a Canadian player on a Canadian team entrusted with the future of Canada's game.

"So you ask yourself, do I really need this? Why don't I just put in my 10 or 15 years and go away quietly. I don't have to stand up," Healy said.

Standing up
Linden was first elected president of the NHLPA in 1998 and is currently serving the first year of his fourth two-year term. He is described as thoughtful and able to maintain his composure in stressful and emotional situations -- a perfect personality for the position. While some team's player representatives have lashed out at league officials (Philadelphia Flyers goalie Robert Esche went so far as to call Bettman a "madman"), Linden has kept his comments to a minimum. Even when last week's talks ended with no breakthrough, Linden chose to wait a day before offering his assessment.

Even the NHL's top negotiator, Bill Daly, credited Linden for spearheading the informal negotiating sessions, high praise for a player with only a high school diploma whose natural inclination is to avoid attention.

"I think for the most part Trev is pretty thin-skinned," his father said. "As a little kid you never had to spank him to get his attention. All it took was a talking-to."

As a teenager, Linden was recruited to play for Princeton University but instead chose his hometown Medicine Hat Tigers of the rough-and-tumble Western Hockey League. Between leading the Tigers to Memorial Cup titles in 1987 and 1988, Linden helped Team Canada to the gold medal in the World Junior Championship. Then, between taking summer school classes to obtain his high school diploma, Linden was chosen second overall by the Canucks in the 1988 draft.

"Trevor is not one to leave loose ends," his father said. "As a young kid he was so responsible and so mature. If he said he would do it, it was done."

Lane Linden recalled a recent family Christmas in Vancouver when Trevor was late for dinner because he had stopped by the local Ronald MacDonald House to drop off some toys. His father asked how many gifts he'd taken and Linden said 25 or 30 -- enough for the patients and their brothers and sisters who Linden knew would be spending Christmas there as well.


"He said, 'You can't just take a gift for one,'" his father recalled.

A runner-up to defenseman Brian Leetch for rookie of the year honors in 1988-89, Linden went on to distinguish himself in the NHL as a classy and gritty player who often found himself on the periphery of greatness. In 1994, he captained the Canucks to the Stanley Cup finals. He scored twice in Game 7, but lost 3-2 as the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. He scored his only goal of the 1998 Olympics in the semifinals against the Czech Republic. With 63 seconds left in regulation, Linden sent the game into overtime, only watch Team Canada fall in a shootout.

No matter how the lockout is settled, it's unlikely the man who represented more than 700 of his peers, did the most to facilitate talks and had an equally profound effect on the players' association and the future of the game will be readily remembered.

"It's a very, very special responsibility that he's got on our behalf," New York Islanders captain Michael Peca said. "I've got nothing but the utmost respect for Trevor. He's one of those born-leader guys."

Peca broke into the NHL in 1993-94 and traveled with the Canucks during their run to the finals. He recalled the intensity Linden brought to the dressing room, his preparation for games and the demands he made of himself and his teammates.

"I got to see really up close him kind of carrying that team through the playoffs. It was a very special time," Peca said. "I didn't find him quiet at all. He spoke up. He's very principally oriented."

Principle. It kept Linden on as NHLPA president and it divides the sides in current negotiations.

Linden doesn't discuss the situation with his father, nor does he disclose his feelings about it. Still, Lane Linden can tell by the tone of his son's voice that he's fully invested.

"I would have to think this is a pretty rough row to hoe for the lad," Linden's father said. "I take my hat off to him."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.