Thursday, September 11, 2008

NHL: We've heard this song before

Does this story [David Shoalts, The Globe and Mail] about hockey players getting screwed out of their pension money seem familiar to anyone? It darn well should. The last man to mess with the players' pensions was former NHLPA czar Alan Eagleson and we all know how that worked out ["Eagleson Pleads Guilty", Maclean's via The Canadian Encyclopedia].

Casual students of the game would do well to remember that Eagleson's previous follies weren't exposed until Carl Brewer and Susan Foster courageously ran up massive legal bills trying to expose his shenanigans and Lawrence Eagle-Tribune sports editor Russ Conway spent over a year on Eagleson's trail. As written on Andrew's Stars Page, "Brewer, former player, and Conway, a newspaper writer, were instrumental in exposing the fraud and corruption during Alan Eagleson's reign as head of the NHLPA and his time as the most powerful man in hockey. It helped bring justice to hundreds of retired NHL players, and set the stage for big changes in the league's relations with the players."

On the face of it, this pension scandal doesn't seem to be as serious. There are still major issues at play, though, as the players are charging that the plan is shortchanging widows and beneficiaries to the tune of $1 million. Many will probably argue that the players make so much that this doesn't matter, but it's not really as extensive at that if you look at the average salaries and the average career lengths. Besides, as Shoalts writes, "The union believes the death benefit paid to the widows and other beneficiaries of players who died before they started collecting their NHL pensions was less than required by both the plan and by law."

When you bring in the "by law", that adds a new dimension. Pension rules are usually very strict, and the government doesn't take tinkering with them lightly. This could be very significant for the NHL and the NHLPA, and if it turns out that the shortage was intentional, that could add a whole new level of nastiness to the next collective bargaining session. We'll have to see how it turns out, but this could be big.

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