New NHLPA head Walsh quickly figuring out player priorities
By STEPHEN WHYNO
Marty Walsh is still fresh in his new job as head of the NHL Players' Association and trying to learn what members of the union want.
It didn't take long to figure out a couple of priorities.
The former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Mayor of Boston knows players want to get back on the ice for a major international tournament and that they do not want to pay any more money into escrow. With talks ongoing to hold another World Cup of Hockey and a discussion on significantly raising the salary cap upcoming, Walsh has a clear starting point long before collective bargaining talks resume in a couple of years.
"When I get asked the question about whether I'd be interested in seeing the cap go up, my answer is yes, and my follow-up to that was that the players are not interested in raising the escrow right now," Walsh said at his introductory news conference Thursday, in which topics ranged from finances and relationships to player participation in Pride night warmups and international competition.
"What I'd like to do is let's establish the World Cup hockey back and let's have a forward-looking schedule to see, so people can be consistent it. Fans love it. Players love it. It's important for us to do it."
What else is important to players? Walsh, who left the Biden Administration midway to lead hockey's players union, said he's spending his first several weeks on the job meeting with them to gather that information.
Just from talking to the 10 members of the search committee who ultimately chose him over more inside-hockey candidates, Walsh said players "deserve a leader that knows who they are and knows their families."
Making note of personal interactions was a common theme of Walsh's first public comments since accepting the position to succeed Don Fehr.
Walsh, 55, acknowledged he's a "different type of leader" than his predecessors, which may be what the union needs at this interesting juncture with revenues at a record level and players hoping to capitalize on the growing market.
Collective bargaining negotiations are still a ways away with the current agreement in place through 2026, but Walsh has already opened a dialogue with Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Walsh said they met for about a half-hour in New York and Bettman brought up the topic of what it would take for the salary cap to go up more than $1 million this offseason.
Players are still paying owners back for losses incurred during the pandemic, and it would take an agreement on adjusting finances to avoid waiting another year for the cap to jump beyond $83.5 million.
"Certainly we're open to any conversation," Walsh said before correcting himself. "Let me go back: We're open to any conversation, but we're not opening to changing the escrow."
The CBA extension the league and union agreed to in 2020 to resume the season included a cap on the percentage of player salaries that can be held in escrow to even out the 50/50 split of revenue with owners.
Having that money taken out of checks has been a grievance of players for a decade now, and it's clear Walsh understood those concerns right away.
He also gets how much players want to compete in what's known in hockey as "best on best" international competition, including the Olympics. Walsh pointed out participation in the 2026 Milan-Cortina Games is already in the CBA and any change to that will need to be discussed.
As for other bargaining topics, Walsh quipped, "We'll have a wonderful relationship as long as Commissioner Bettman agrees with everything I say" before going on to describe his hope for a collaborative approach.
"I think that as long as there's mutual respect for each other, there'll be a great opportunity here moving forward on behalf of the players and behalf of the league," Walsh said.
One of the hot topics this spring is players opting out of wearing rainbow-colored jerseys for pregame warmups on team Pride Nights. Walsh was asked about and addressed Pride night incidents several times Thursday.
"I agree with Commissioner Bettman when he says everyone has the right to make their own personal decision," Walsh said. "On the other side of that, I think we need to make sure that people understand that the game of hockey is an inclusive game, and we welcome everyone."
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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Updated March 30, 2023