- Jim Kelley
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TORONTO -- Fresh off a recently ratified six-year collective bargaining agreement with the NHL, the NHL Players' Association is entering into a new world in a relationship with a league it so often crossed swords with. How it will do so, however, has been open to much speculation.
Can there be a working relationship between a union and a league that locked its players out twice in a decade, the second time canceling an entire season? Can there truly be a "partnership" between a group that had to swallow a 24 percent rollback in income and accept a salary cap and linkage to league revenues? What will be the legacy of former union head Bob Goodenow, and is the new executive director, Ted Saskin, the right man for the job? Is there a plan for the game, not just for winning back fans lost in the lockout but also for growth, especially growth in the United States? Can all this be done while the players' association undergoes a change at the top?
ESPN.com recently sat down with Saskin in the PA's offices in Toronto for a Q-and-A session on these and a variety of other topics. Some of the answers have been edited for length and clarity.
The Right Stuff?
Kelley Q: The past year-plus has been turbulent and sometimes painful. How long will it take for some of the deeper wounds to heal, and where does the PA go from here?
Saskin A: I was around for the negotiations in 1994-95, and that was a lockout situation, as well. It was surprising how quickly the two sides came together to forge a working relationship after that deal was done. That was a tough fight, and this was one, too, but afterward, Bob [Goodenow] and Gary [NHL commissioner Gary Bettman] immediately came together to work under the terms of the agreement. This is an agreement where both sides have come together to turn the page, if you will. I think from [the] outset, we would like to see a new environment and we intend to work to make the new system work. There will be a feeling-out period, there are some areas where neither side knows exactly how certain things will work out, but overall, there is still a marketplace for hockey and it's imperative that both sides work to capitalize on that.
Q: Are you the right man for this job at this time?
A: I am very confident I can do this job. I've worked for the PA for 15 years, and I've been involved in all aspects of the agreement in '94-'95 and this one. I believe I am fully familiar with all the issues and the contents of the CBA and I know both what the contract says and the spirit in which that language was constructed and how we got to that, and that's very important.
Goodenow and the Future
Q: In addition to healing between the two sides, it would appear there needs to be some healing within the PA. There have been statements from some players that indicate dissatisfaction with both the agreement and how it came to be. There are players who appear to bemoan the resignation of Bob Goodenow and those who welcome it and you. Does it fall to you to pull the PA back together?
A: I believe so. I also would caution … a rush to judgment. There has been a rush about certain aspects of the agreement and there have been some trade-offs on certain issues, but it's a very complicated agreement and not all of the details have surfaced. When we started to make progress on this agreement, it was in the area of identifying critical issues and then negotiating a fair compromise on systemic improvements. The NHLPA is fully committed to making this work. I think both sides recognized there needed to be a reduction in the cost of the business and the debate was over what system best addressed that. That was not an easy task, but I think once everyone comes to understand the agreement, some of the dissatisfaction that has been expressed might be relieved.
Q: Bob Goodenow's legacy, if it could be characterized in one word, might be termed "confrontational." What might we expect in terms of your approach to working with the league?
A: Well, it's safe to say that there are going to be issues and that they will require action and those actions can't be reliably predicted, save to say we believe there is a need to improve both the game and the business of the game. We believe it's important to get back fans we might have lost and to develop new ones -- and that it's important that all sides recognize that. It's of paramount importance, I think, that we work to solve our problems. I have conversations with Gary and with Bill [deputy commissioner Bill Daly] on an ongoing basis. Sometimes I initiate them, sometimes they do. I believe that having that kind of a dialogue is important. I intend to continue that.
Q: For the PA, what's the business model in relation to the "partnership" with the NHL? Can the two sides work together for a common good?
A: In some areas, we've already shown that we can work well together. We've had a good fit with the World Cup of Hockey and with the Olympics in Nagano and Salt Lake. Those were joint efforts for a common goal, and I think we've shown we can work together in that area. Having players on the competition committee is an indication of being able to take that concept even further, and I think we can do the same with sponsorship issues. Players understand the game, and they understand the importance of making the game more competitive and more compelling. That's something that benefits both sides and having players participate in such a seriously dedicated forum as a competition committee is good for the game itself.
Q: But can you have a true partnership in the wake of such an acrimonious lockout and giveback?
A: It does have to involve mutual respect and trust. It does require a certain commitment from both sides. Ownership needs to understand and approve the spirit of the agreement and that both sides are working toward a common goal. It will take a commitment from both parties to be dedicated to that goal.
Growing the Game
Q: Growth of the game has to be tied to the U.S. marketplace. Do players accept that, and what can they do to enhance it and thereby their own well-being?
A: Absolutely, and not just in an anecdotal way, but they have to keep it in mind in all aspects. That's why we viewed Olympic participation as so important. It's critical to the growth of the game. Americans, especially Americans who don't follow hockey, will follow it in the Olympics because it's Americans in the Olympics. Those are the people we need to reach out to. Those are the people for whom we need to make the game more compelling. If we reach those people in the U.S., then we'll see a growth in the game, a growth in licensed products, video games and the like."
Jim Kelley is an award-winning hockey writer based in Buffalo, N.Y., and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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