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November 28, 2012
Zamboni Tracks
Zamboni Pit Stops

by Ryan Wagman

1. Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr, and the NHL Lockout

As many of you know, Marvin Miller passed away this Tuesday, November 27, at the ripe old age of 95. Paraphrasing Buck O'Neil, another not-yet-hallowed baseball demi-god in his remarks at the passing of a friend and former colleague, when someone of a certain advanced age passes, we should not mourn the death, but celebrate the long life that was. And so we shall for Miller, the father of the modern sports union. Head of the Major League Baseball Players' Association from 1966-1982, Miller's tireless and passionate approach to ensuring players' rights led to the dawn of free agency as he broke the reserve clause that had yoked players to their teams from the dawn of the professional age.

When Miller took charge of the nascent union, players were locked in with the team that signed them as amateurs in perpetuity. If a player were not able to come to terms with his team for a given season, the team had the right to simply give the player the same contract he played under during the prior season. If a player did not want to play under those terms, he could walk away from the game, or force the team to trade him to another team that needed that player a bit more and would be more willing to pay the price. In other words, players were property.

Miller realized that the law which forced the previous years' contract upon a player was worded such that the provision was only binding for a single season. This position was tested with pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. The two played a full season without signed contracts and then filed grievances with an arbitrator. In a decision that changed sports as we know it irreversibly, the arbitrator decided in favor of the players, stating that they had fulfilled their obligations to their contracts and were henceforth free agents.

As a young lawyer at the time, Donald Fehr worked for Miller and the MLBPA in the cases. He later took over the reins of the MLBPA after Miller's second, interim period in charge in late 1983. Following in Miller's footsteps, Fehr ensured that baseball has remained—and is likely to remain—the only one of the four major North American sports without a salary cap.

When Fehr was brought in to take over as Executive Director of the NHLPA, many thought that he would fight tooth and nail to abolish the salary cap that the previous lockout nearly destroyed the league in order to establish seven short years ago. For reasons that may yet become clear if the current lockout lasts much longer, Fehr has actually bent much more towards the owners than many have thought possible. Most notably, the union has backed away from their previously collected 57% of hockey related revenue to a position that would move them down to 50% effective immediately, with a set schedule of "Make Whole" payments to be meted out over the next four seasons to ease the cut to the players. While the League disagrees on the size of the Make Whole package, they are now at least in agreement that one will be necessary to strike a deal with the union and have included their own proposal, albeit at only slightly more than half the amount that the players have demanded.

With the main stumbling block to a new CBA being the new player contract rules that the league has demanded and the players have categorically refused, the two sides have now agreed to talk it out with a mediator. Talks begin this Wednesday, November 28, 2012.

Unlike the arbitrator's decision in the Messersmith and McNally cases, neither the NHL nor the NHLPA is bound to accept the guidance of the mediators. Should mediation fail and the union seek a binding referee, their next recourse may well be decertification. By closing down the NHLPA, the players can individually file antitrust lawsuits against the league owners. While there are positives and negatives to going this route, let's all hope that it can be avoided.

2. The Coyote Question

While the NHL had failed to secure an owner to take over the beleaguered Phoenix Coyotes franchise, now entering their fourth year under league stewardship, the city of Glendale, home to the Coyotes' arena, had also yet to decide if they even wanted the bother of keeping team in their town.

On Tuesday evening, the council of the City of Glendale met to discuss the potential deal deemed necessary to pave the way for Greg Jamison to purchase the club without relocation. In short, the city has been asked to contribute a significant chunk of their annual budget for arena management costs. The current proposal calls for a 20-year lease locking the franchise into the arena, with the city chipping in a total $308 million for the privilege of holding onto the team with the NHL's lowest average attendance in two of the past three seasons, an attendance record that has not risen above 25th in the league since the 2006-07 season, when it ranked 24th.

While early reports from the city council meeting showed mild support for the deal to keep the team in The Valley of the Sun, more than anything, the city's residents were ambivalent. Perhaps a microcosm of general support for the game these days, those in attendance at the meeting were passionate one way or the other, but there were also a noticeable number of empty of empty seats at the council meeting. The city seemed to be forced to choose between losing the team and maintaining a mostly empty arena—which is currently even emptier than normal—as well as the suffering of businesses in the immediately surrounding neighborhood, or using funds that would otherwise be earmarked for providing services to the general population, such as free public swimming pools, for the management burden that has been asked of them.

Of course, Jamison still needs to be officially approved by the NHL as the new owner of the franchise. As a former executive of the San Jose Sharks, the approval would seem to be nothing more than a formality, but stranger things have happened behind closed doors in the No Hockey League. Although Jamison refused to name his investors even when questioned by city council members, lending credence to their scepticism, and despite the fact that the presence of NHL has not resulted in the local economic boon that many supporters envisioned when the team first came in from Winnipeg in 1996, the council voted by a count of 4-2 to pay the piper and keep the Coyotes in Glendale for the foreseeable future.

Then again, for as long as this saga has already lasted, do not be surprised if we are still discussing this issue well after the current lockout is over.

3. Riley Sheahan

I do not know Riley Sheahan personally, nor am I privy to the finer details of his police record. I know enough to state definitively that he has been lauded as a standout hockey prospect since his teenage years with the St. Catharine's Falcons of the GOJHL, a reputation that continued to grow until he was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the late first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. As is the case with many sheltered youth, Sheahan has made a minor habit of flouting his special status, and on more than one occasion, his cavalier attitude to social mores has ended with flashing lights and badges.

As a freshman at Notre Dame, Sheahan was arrested along with teammate Kyle Palmieri as an underage drinker, charged with public intoxication and minor consumption—he was only 18 years old at the time.

This is not the forum for excoriating a youth from imbibing a little while in college. Not by me, anyway. I had a few drinks before I was legal, too, and I am not about to call the kettle black on that account. In any case, one minor indiscretion is forgivable for anyone. No harm, no foul.

Earlier this week, reports emerged that Sheahan, less than three years removed from the earlier incident, was arrested in late October for driving drunk. Actually, according to the amount of alcohol in his bloodstream, he was "Super Drunk", a term reserved for those with more than double the Michigan state legal limit in their system. The Red Wings prospect was nearly four times the legal limit when arrested. And he was driving the wrong way down a one way street. And he was wearing a purple Teletubby costume at the time.

Topping off the matter was that, when pulled over by the police, Sheahan provided the officer with the driver's license of Grand Rapids teammate Brendan Smith, another young man with a sudsy rap sheet in his past.

This incident is not posted here as a comment on the particulars of the case—which will go before a court in mid-December—but to comment on how lessons are learned. Should Sheahan be merely slapped on the wrist for the crime, there will not be much to prevent a recurrence. Nikolai Khabibulin served two weeks in an Arizona jail and a further two weeks under house arrest for an extreme DUI in the summer of 2011.

It could have been worse. In 1999, NHL veteran Steve Chiasson left a teammate's house party with a blood alcohol level similar to (although slightly lower than) Sheahan's. Chiasson never made it home. Hall of Famer Tim Horton also saw his life end well before his coffee shop chain took off due to an accident that came about while driving drunk. Pelle Lindbergh was another. These are just famous NHL hockey players. Many, many others have suffered similar, tragic fates. Even more have fallen as victims of the intoxicated driving of others.

Unfortunately, I have little faith that, should Sheahan be made an example of in the courts, his punishment will serve as a warning for other people with similar predispositions. My only hope is that the punishment will be enough to prevent him from re-enacting the abject stupidity that was the genesis of this sub-article.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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