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Expanded playoffs, the flat cap and the Olympics: Union head Marty Walsh on the state of the NHL

Before Marty Walsh took over the National Hockey League Players Association in February 2023, he witnessed soccer history.

It was Sept. 2022 at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. Having served as Boston’s mayor from 2014 to 2021, Walsh was now the Secretary of Labor under President Biden. Representatives from the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams signed their collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer, with identical pay structures for appearances and tournament victories, as well as revenue sharing and equitable distribution of World Cup prize money.

“I was literally on the field. I was very emotional, representing President Biden and Vice President Harris as that happened,” he said.

A few months later and now Walsh will be the one negotiating a labor deal for athletes after being named the new executive director of the NHLPA, succeeding Donald Fehr. Fehr led the NHLPA from 2010 and negotiated on the players’ behalf through two collective bargaining agreements with NHL owners.

Walsh takes over the NHLPA at a time of temporary labor peace, a few unexpected controversies and a chance to lead the players into even greater levels of celebrity and prosperity.

“I think there’s opportunities for growth in the sport of hockey,” said Walsh, a lifelong hockey fan.

Walsh spoke to ESPN earlier this month on a variety of topics facing the NHLPA and the league itself.

Leading superstars and role players

Walsh is familiar with the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement. It’s printed out on his desk, around an inch-and-a-half thick of bylaws, regulations and all the formalized agreements between the players and the owners.

“I’ll be honest with you: I’ve looked at it a bunch of times, but I haven’t learned every single section of it,” said Walsh. “You don’t really learn about the sections of CBAs until you have a conflict. And then obviously you learn the CBA.”

Walsh has worked with unions before. CBAs are CBAs, covering the same general areas like working conditions, healthcare benefits and pension plans. The difference with the NHL CBA, or that of any pro sport, is on the salary side.

“Generally in a collective bargaining agreement, you’re negotiating for a unit that all makes the same. In this particular case, the benefits are the same, but the salaries are different because they’re negotiated individually, minus the league-minimum salary guys,” he said.

The challenge for Walsh and his predecessors in the NHLPA has been to get all of these players – different salaries, different experience levels, different backgrounds – on the same page for what’s best for the union’s membership as a whole.

“You have 750-plus members and they all have different concerns and different opinions. Where I’m at now, four months in, is really getting to understand where the players are coming from and what they’re concerned about,” said Walsh.

He said that the players understand there are different salary levels in the NHL and “you try to represent them all” as best as an executive director can.

“If I got a call from Nathan MacKinnon, as an example, or from somebody who just came in the league a year ago and is at the league minimum, to me they’re the same person, as far as listening and hearing what their concerns might be,” Walsh said.

CBA concerns

Over the last decade, the NHL has seen franchise valuations boom, to the point where it was reasonable to expect a team like the Ottawa Senators would sell for over $1 billion. (Michael Andlauer’s winning bid came under that, but just barely.)

The NHL has considerable media rights deals in the U.S., Canada and abroad for its games. Sponsor United reported that the NHL’s sponsorship revenue grew 21% in 2022-23 to reach $1.28 billion.

The NHL salary cap in the 2012-13 season was $70.2 million. The salary cap for the 2023-24 season is $83.5 million.

Walsh said in his conversations with players, he heard concerns about the salary cap’s lack of growth. But the “flat cap” due to the COVID pandemic certainly played a role in that lack of exponential growth for the salary cap.

“The salary cap is based off the revenue and in the last couple of years, COVID threw a huge curveball at everyone. If COVID doesn’t happen, the salary cap is going up. Because of COVID, there was a debt that was owed [by the players], and hopefully that’s resolved by the end of next season,” said Walsh. “Then what you have is a system that will be tied into growth and revenue.”

By 2025-26, the cap is expected to rise above $92 million.

That’s growth. But is it growth commiserate with the revenues the league is generating? Is it growth that would put the NHL’s top stars closer to the salaries of counterparts in other pro leagues, or growth that would “un-squeeze” the salaries of veteran role players whose earnings have frequently been casualties of the cap?

“I’m not being critical, but team franchise wealth is certainly growing at a disproportionate [rate] compared to what the players are making,” said Walsh. “You now have a lot of teams in the next couple of years that will be worth a billion dollars, and then you’ll be talking about the $2 billion team.”

Since taking over the NHLPA, Walsh has focused less on the salary cap’s restraints and more on how to “create opportunities for players” within that system. He’s spoken about having the players do more to promote hockey “domestically and internationally” in order to create more relationships and partnerships for “growth in the sport of hockey.”

The current CBA expires on Sept. 15, 2026. As usual, there’s already some consternation on the players’ side about what the owners might try to claw back. One player agent recently voiced a concern to ESPN that the current 50/50 split in league revenues between owners and players could be put on the negotiating table. Please recall that the owners wanted to reduce the players’ share from 57% to around 43% before the sides agreed to a 50/50 split in the 2013 NHL CBA agreement.

Walsh said that he doesn’t see “the benefit for the owners” if they decided to attack the 50/50 revenue split.

“For the most part, there is a lot of peace. I think it’s good for the league to have stability moving forward. It’s good for the players,” said Walsh.

Focus on international hockey

Walsh said his initial conversations with players have yielded a few common themes. They’re worried about salary cap growth. They loathe escrow. And they have a keen interest in the global reach of the NHL – especially when it comes to best-on-best tournaments.

NHL players participated in five consecutive Olympics starting in 1998, but that streak ended after the 2014 Sochi Games. The NHL opted not to send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, citing a change in terms with the league’s agreement with the IOC and also because “the overwhelming majority of our clubs” were “adamantly opposed” to disrupting the 2017-18 season for the South Korea-hosted Games, according to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

The 2020 collective bargaining agreement formalized a commitment by the NHL and the NHLPA to participate in both the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics. But that participation is “subject to negotiation of terms acceptable to each of the NHL, NHLPA, and IIHF (and/or IOC).” Despite that agreement, the NHL opted out again from the 2022 Games in Beijing, citing “a profound disruption to the regular-season schedule caused by recent COVID-related events.”

Walsh said his focus is on getting NHL players back into the Winter Olympics for the 2026 Milano Cortina Games in Italy.

“I’m working with commissioner Bettman, collectively together with the IIHF, and hopefully we’ll be able to come up with an agreement and move forward,” he said. “A lot of players from around the globe want to play for their home country. They want that best-on-best tournament. They want to be part of it.”

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN that “we are still working to facilitate participation in the 2026 Milan Olympics.”

Walsh said he’s still learning about the history and dynamics of the NHL and the NHLPA’s relationship with the IOC, and what it’ll take to play in Milano Cortina.

“We just want to work that out. They can play in the Olympics in 2026. That’s something that’s really important to a lot of players,” he said.

But the players are focused on more than just the Olympics when it comes to international hockey. Walsh said they’re also fixated on the next edition of the World Cup of Hockey, which was resurrected as an eight-team, NHL/NHLPA-backed tournament held in Toronto in 2016. Walsh said the important things for the players are format and regularity.

“We’ve had some conversations with the league about making sure that if we’re going to do a World Cup hockey tournament, it’s best-on-best and we do it for a period of a couple different tournaments, so that we’re not doing this one-off every 10 years. That we have more consistency moving forward. That still has a ways to go,” he said.

Bettman and Walsh met during the spring to discuss the next World Cup.

“I think we’re off to a great start. We both identify it as a priority,” said Bettman.

There were plans to hold the World Cup in February 2024. But the NHL and NHLPA said in a joint statement that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made “the current environment not feasible” to stage the event at that time. Daly said in 2022 that the NHL had heard from some participating countries that “would have objections to Russian participation in the World Cup.”

But he also said the NHL was committed to having its Russian stars participate in the World Cup: “We would certainly like to accommodate them in some credible way.”

Regarding current World Cup plans, Daly told ESPN that the NHL “still wants to create and stage an international competition in February of 2025.”

Walsh also said his players are interested in the NHL’s Global Series, which stages games in international cities. The Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings are playing exhibition games in Melbourne, Australia, this season, while the Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs are playing regular-season games in Stockholm.

“We’ve had great meetings with the league on making sure that as we go to a location in the future, that we make sure [we use] that opportunity to grow the game in those places,” said Walsh.

He also wants the NHL to use international hockey events to reach new audiences. He told the Associated Press that he’s wondered about opportunities for hockey in Latin American countries and among underserved populations in North America.

“We have teams like the Dallas Stars and the Coyotes and even the Panthers to some degree: large Latino populations,” Walsh said. “You think of Boston – are we tapping into Latino population in Boston, New York, Chicago, places like that?”

More regular season games, more playoff teams?

When Marty Walsh was a young Boston Bruins fan, he watched a league where 12 of 17 teams qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The arrival of the Seattle Kraken pushed the current total of NHL teams to 32, with 16 teams making the playoffs each year.

The other major pro sports have all expanded their postseason fields in recent years, including the addition of play-in games for the NBA and Major League Baseball. Is there an appetite from NHL players to follow their lead?

“I have not had those conversations yet. I would talk to the players to see what they feel about it and then make a proposal or presentation to league,” he said. “But as a sports fan, I’ve certainly seen that happening. I’ve watched the play-in games in the NBA and the NFL add another team in there.”

Bettman has said there’s not been a push within the Board of Governors about expanding the playoff field. Nor has there been a push to extend the regular season from 82 to 84 games, although the NHL has discussed the possibility at the executive level.

Walsh said he’s yet to discuss that possibility with the players, who would undoubtably have to sign off on an increase in games played.

“Any conversations about rule changes, league changes or the game changes, those are things that I would have a long conversation with players about first,” said Walsh. “I’m certainly not in a position to recommend changes on how we do things in the National Hockey League without having support of the players I represent.”

Should Coyotes relocate?

One of the issues Walsh has taken a hard stance on during his brief time with the NHLPA concerns the Arizona Coyotes playing games at Mullett Arena in Tempe – an NCAA hockey rink that’s their temporary home until they can secure a site for a new arena.

Walsh said he’s met more with Arizona players than anyone else in the NHLPA. He’s called NHL players competed in a college “just not right” and “not good for the game.”

The Coyotes wanted to build a new arena in Tempe but lost a public referendum in April that killed that project. At the NHL Draft in June, Coyotes CEO Xavier Gutierrez said the team is looking at a half dozen potential arena sites in the East Valley to build “a privately funded sports and entertainment district.” Gutierrez has told NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that the Coyotes will avoid choosing a site that requires “a public referendum” after losing the Tempe vote in May.

Walsh said he and Bettman actually watched a Coyotes game at Mullett Arena together last season, talking about the Arizona franchise and other issues during the game. “We’ve had a very good open dialogue on a lot of different issues,” he said.

When the Tempe vote failed, Bettman and the NHL put out their most emphatic messaging about the Coyotes’ future. Bettman told Sportsnet in June that “by midseason, we should have a pretty good handle on what their situation is. If we need to explore further options at that time, we’ll consult with management and figure out what to do.”

Walsh said he needs to have “shovels in the ground” clarity on the Coyotes’ new arena as well.

If that doesn’t materialize by midseason, should the Coyotes relocate?

“I’ve been very clear. I said these players deserve to play in an NHL arena. The ownership of the Coyotes are working to try and find a location. And if we have ground broken in the near future really soon, then that means an arena’s coming. At that point, you can go to the players and say to them, ‘You’re going to be in this stadium for two or two and a half more years, but there’s a new arena being built on the street.’ That’s a whole different ball game from going into the season not having a location that changes those dynamics,” said Walsh, who said he wants clarity in the next several months about the Coyotes’ future.

“I don’t know what the rules and regulations are for ownership. But I want the players I represent to be playing in a National Hockey League arena,” he said.

Warm-Up jersey controversy

When Walsh landed with the NHLPA, he was immediately confronted by a controversial issue: The decision by several NHL players not to wear Pride Night jerseys during warmups.

“It was probably less than a percent of players that didn’t want to wear the [Pride] jerseys for whatever reason. Political reasons for players from different countries, religious religions,” said Walsh. “I don’t think anyone said, ‘I’m not wearing the jersey cause I don’t believe in gay rights.’ I think they’ve said [it’s because of] religious beliefs or political back home beliefs.”

Ivan Provorov, playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, was the first player to opt out of wearing a Pride jersey in January, citing his religious beliefs. He didn’t participate in warmups, but played in their game.

“The day before I got voted in by the [NHLPA] executive board [was when] the first player said they weren’t going to wear the jersey,” he said. “It just kind of caught me by surprise a little bit. I realized quickly that we have some education to do here.”

Walsh said that the “overwhelming majority” of players support the LGBTQ community. Walsh said he’s been “a huge supporter of the LGBTQ community” in his political career. He’s said for years that “the proudest vote I ever took as a state legislator was the vote I cast for marriage equality” in 2007.

In June, the NHL Board of Governors sought to avoid future controversies by no longer allowing teams to wear any specialty jerseys during warmups. The ban includes jerseys that teams have worn for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Military Appreciation Night, Hockey Fights Cancer, as well as more localized celebrations like San Jose’s Hispanic Heritage Night.

For years, player-worn jerseys were often designed by artists from marginalized communities and would be auctioned off after games to benefit local and national charities — oftentimes generating thousands of dollars per jersey, depending on the player. Bettman emphasized that specialty nights will continue to be held and that teams can still create jerseys to be auctioned off.

In a recent interview with The Hockey News, Walsh said philanthropic work was one way players could help grow the NHL, such as “expanding our relationship with the American Cancer Society, and also the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as the V Foundation, other places that we can really think about.”

Was the decision to do away with specialty warmup jerseys damaging to those efforts?

“I think it’s an opportunity somewhere down the road to take a revisit, see where we are and how we move forward,” he said. “But those arenas are still going to have those nights. Those nights are still going to be celebrated. They’re still going to be raising money.”

Walsh said he doesn’t view the specialty jersey ban – taking away a player’s choice to wear a jersey supporting Pride, cancer research or Black History Month – as a win for a small number of players vs. the majority of his constituency.

“I think if it was a win for the minority, it would’ve been that we’re eliminating Pride Nights. And it wasn’t that. It was just the jersey and the teams and the arenas are still going to be celebrating Pride Nights,” said Walsh. “I just think maybe people got caught off guard a little bit. As we move forward, I think we have some work to do. We all have work to do.”

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