The NHLPA Skates For The Fans

This post is fiction. But if it weren’t, and  in light of the pending NHL Lockout, wouldn’t it be great?…

It’s called many things. Passive aggressive. Provocative. Showing leadership. Undermining. And always remember, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Any way you slice it, the NHLPA really did not like the way they were being portrayed by NHL management nor the stonewalling on a new CBA agreement. So they took a bold step two weeks into the 2012 Lockout.

On Wednesday, October 25th, NHLPA head Donald Fehr issued the following press statement: “…We have maintained from the opening salvo of this year’s CBA talks that the players want and are prepared to play… that a Lockout was not necessary. We have not been heard by NHL management. So now we are taking matters into our own hands. Beginning January the 1st we are pleased to announce that the NHLPA is brining the NHLPA League to professional hockey fans in North America. A 28-game regular season schedule will be played by mid-March, and a seven-game Playoff round will close out March 2013 so fans in NHL and other cities can see their favorite players skate in competition….”

Collective jaws in New York and team offices across the continent dropped. Indignation and expletives ensued. And fans rejoiced.

The NHLPA plan was simple in concept: Bring the best NHL players together to form what was, in effect, four, regional All Star teams and send them out to NHL and/or nearby cities to provide professional hockey fans competition to cheer about. Their January 1st, 2013 start date was necessitated by the time it would take to coordinate requirements to set up a mirror league to how the NHL operates under the NHLPA banner.

The NHLPA did not waste any time over the next few days beginning, or announcing, more detailed plans.

They started by hiring additional personnel. The four, regional teams’ coaching staffs were put together using a combination of former NHL coaches who had no financial or legal ties to NHL clubs and retired players. One of the initial coaching favorites was Nick Lidstrom, chosen as the head coach of the NHLPA Central team. Legal representatives were hired who negotiated ice hockey rinks in which to play, a short-term television deal and a combination Legal and Merchandising team who began the task of designing apparel with kick-ass team logos and colors that would provide no legal grounds for the NHL to sue, block or otherwise secure injunctions to block play.

In a marketing stroke of genius, The NHLPA sponsored the coaching staffs’ draft of regional teams on a premier cable channel 31 days before the start of the season. Drafted players were to report to ‘training camps’ one week later.

Simultaneously, legal teams negotiated deals with the ‘normal’ arenas for NHL teams in every city except Boston, Ottawa, Montreal, Washington, Philadelphia, Madison Square Garden, Toronto, Chicago, Colorado, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Los Angeles. In those cities, teams owned the arenas and with all 30 clubs in an uproar over this ‘stunt,’ they refused to let the teams play. While games in Ottawa and Montreal were moved to Quebec and Hamilton, other venues as close to the NHL teams’ home arena were found.

With all of the venues determined, a 30-game schedule was announced which called for two games in each NHL (or close proximity) arena. The NHLPA Northeast team (comprised of players from Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo, the Rangers, the Islanders and New Jersey) was to play games against the NHLPA Southeast team (from Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida). And the NHLPA Central (from Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Dallas, Minnesota and Winnipeg) were to take on the NHLPA West (Calgary, Edmonton, Phoenix, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim). ‘Regular Season’ games were scheduled at no more than three games per week from 1 January through 9 March. The seven game Playoff series would be played in seven cities chosen by a few, specific criteria: which ones had the highest ‘Regular Season’ attendance on a fan-per-seat ratio; and play at least one game in each region on 11, 13, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24 March. Playoff travel would go from East to West coast over the seven games. And the winner – based first on wins and second on an average by-game winning margin differential – would raise the NHLPA Trophy after Game 7.

Merchandizing flew off the shelves from the online NHLPA Store and outlets opened in each region. None of the money from these sales would be refunded to customers who now held a piece of history and backed the players who were supporting their fan interests. The cable TV contract for the Regional Team draft was non-refundable as well, going to pay for initial NHLPA League expenses and to shore up lower paid players’ salaries who were not receiving a check from their team. All other cable TV contracts were contingent on a game-to-game basis as contests were played and would defray some of the costs of team travel and provide a small player stipend for each game played.

Arena rental fees were to be paid on a game-by-game contractual basis from concessions and parking primarily, and the gate and television revenues as secondary sources. Out of a player-driven desire to show that they were out there on the ice to support the fans, the cost of tickets for games was no more than one–half of the normal cost for that venue. Besides the rest of the arena rental fees, team travel costs and a remaining share split evenly by every NHL player and coaching staffer came from this gate. When you think of the costs of transportation, lodging, other logistical support and arena rental fees and that the average ticket for 18,000 fans was $25, a $450,000 gate for each game split amongst all NHLers and NHLPA staff was not making anybody rich.

Predictably, NHL litigators marched right into court to block the NHLPA League from operating. While the legal drama unfolded in the courts through the month of November, it became apparent in two separate rulings on 21 and 28 November that blocking the formation of the NHLPA League was tantamount to a court-sanctioned business monopoly. The NHL was stymied at every lawful turn.

Fuming, NHL management watched the regional team draft unfold and monitored the social media explosion during and for three days after the event.

Donald Fehr ended that October 25th statement with the following words, “…No part of the NHLPA League is necessary, just as with this Lockout. But we are committed to do this for the fans unless an agreement can be reached before our first puck drop on January 1st….”

And in the end, the ‘unnecessary’ was made unnecessary. Seeing that the NHLPA was prepared to move out with a groundswell, on Tuesday, December 4th the NHL offered a financial olive branch to the NHLPA they could fly with. The Lockout was shutdown, and plans for a 50-game regular season ending by mid-April and a traditional Playoff period were announced by Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr along with the symbolic signing of a new, five-year CBA.

The NHL season would begin with training camps opening that same December 11th the NHLPA League was poised to pursue and plans for a Winter Classic game between Detroit and Toronto on Sunday, February 10th were announced. Fans were thrilled.

At no cost to the NHLPA based on revenues from televising the regional team draft, the NHLPA orchestrated a groundswell of support for their position. When pressed by the press as to whether or not the NHLPA would have carried out their announced plans, Donald Fehr replied, “…We are pleased that fans will find themselves entertained by professional hockey through all of its outlets beginning on January 1st. Make no mistake in what you print here – the puck was dropping for the fans and the sport on that day….”

As the press conference was breaking up, one last question was hollered out toward Fehr.

“…Mr. Fehr! Mr. Fehr! Do you consider yourself more of a freedom fighter or the financial terrorist you were portrayed to be by various NHL clubs in November?”

After a moment of thoughtful contemplation, a standing Donald Fehr leaned back down to the microphone and simply said, “…My favorite cigars are Cohibas…” before exiting the stage for his Toronto offices.



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