Officials' union president sides with owners

Updated: February 14, 2005, 1:30 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

The president of the National Hockey League Officials' Association is pleading for players' association leader Bob Goodenow to accept the NHL's proposed collective bargaining agreement in order to preserve the balance of the season and the integrity of the game.

"He's the one with the flexibility," referee Stephen Walkom told ESPN.com on Friday. "I'm really hoping that the players work hard to get Bob to see that it's time to do something in the short-term that may not be good for the players but is good in the long-term for the industry. Bob has an opportunity right now to do something good for the industry and I believe it's the players' turn to try a different way."

The players' association had no reaction to Walkom's comments.

"Stephen Walkom is entitled to his opinion," NHLPA spokesperson Jonathan Weatherdon said.

After the NHLPA rejected the NHL's last proposal on Wednesday, commissioner Gary Bettman said if the two sides weren't putting a deal into writing by this weekend the season would be canceled. A four-hour session on Thursday ended without any progress and both sides saying they were done negotiating. A meeting in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, which was requested by the U.S. Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, also yielded no progress.

Although officials are trained to be impartial and unbiased on the ice, Walkom said he is also a realist.

Walkom understands there is little time left to negotiate a settlement. But he also thinks if Goodenow agrees to the owners' demand for a link between revenues and salaries a deal can get done that would save the season.

He also said he empathizes with the union's reluctance to trust the financial information the league has offered. The NHLOA had its own tug of war with the league early in 1993-94 when it went on strike for 17 days over its own CBA with the league.

"We understand the reason for the mistrust. We've gone through that," he said.

He said the only way for the league and the players to thrive is to shift the focus away from their business problems.

"What happens if you do this, you give the game back to the fans and the fans come back to the game," Walkom said. "If our industry is healthy, and a partnership is broached between the players and the owners, then the focus will be on the players who will benefit for years to come."

The players have basically had it their way since the last agreement was forged in 1995, Walkom said. Now it's time for the owners to regain control.

"They need to have control of their league back," he said. "I think Bob's done a wonderful job for the players, now it's time for him to do something wonderful for the game."

The officials have been the forgotten part of the NHL dispute, integral to the on-ice product yet shut out of a process that directly affects their livelihood. They haven't received a paycheck since the lockout started five months ago, but all 80 officials agreed beforehand they would not take jobs from other officials by working in other leagues. Their decision stems from the support they received from colleagues in other leagues during their strike 11 years ago. The NHLOA felt it was important to maintain that solidarity, even though the current NHL lockout threatens the entire 2004-05 season and beyond.

The NHL's 44 referees earn an average $150,000 per season, while linesmen average $100,000. Many officials have taken up odd jobs to make ends meet, as well as keep themselves occupied. Don Van Massenhoven has been selling cars, Bill McCreary builds kitchen cabinets and Kerry Fraser obtained his real estate license.

The NHL also has offered loans to officials who require it.

"Our guys are basically unemployed," Walkom said. "Our guys are basically covering the bills. That's all we're doing."

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

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