The NHL Players’ Association has a new top boss.
On Thursday, the organization confirmed what had been widely speculated over the last couple of weeks — that former Boston mayor Marty Walsh would be taking the reins as the union’s new executive director.
“I am honored to have been selected as the Executive Director of the NHLPA. In accepting this offer I am committing to do all that I can to advocate on players’ behalf,” Walsh said in a statement. “My years of experience in the labor movement and in public life has taught me that the job is never about me. It’s about us. It’s about the people we serve.”
Walsh, 55, will step into his new role in mid-March. He succeeds Donald Fehr, who had served as executive director since 2010 and guided the players through two rounds of collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
The first saw a four-month lockout at the beginning of the 2012-13 season before the players acquiesced to ownership’s demands that the players’ share of hockey-related revenues under the NHL’s hard salary-cap system drop from 57% to 50%.
A CBA extension came in July of 2020, as part of a memorandum of understanding that outlined a framework for the NHL’s return to play following the league’s pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic four months earlier. The agreement got the NHL back onto the ice, but the subsequent imbalance between hockey-related revenues and player expenses has kept the salary-cap essentially stagnant — limiting players’ earning power even as owners’ franchise values have soared.
While the NHLPA voted last April to begin the search for a new executive director, Fehr’s tenure was one of relative prosperity and stability in the often tumultuous NHL world. Players and teams saw steady salary-cap increases from 2013 to 2020, the addition of two new successful new expansion franchises (the Vegas Golden Knights and the Seattle Kraken) and, with them, nearly 50 new jobs. And only one franchise has relocated — and that came early in Fehr’s tenure (Atlanta to Winnipeg, 2011).
Walsh was identified as a candidate for the job by the executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, which was brought on board by the NHLPA’s seven-member search committee last August. While the committee made every effort to keep its search as private as possible, word trickled out that they were hoping to recommend a candidate from outside the hockey world and with a strong background in labor.
Walsh was a laborer himself. He obtained his first union card in 1988 and became president of Boston’s Laborers Local 223 at 21 years old. He was first elected to Boston’s House of Representatives in 1997 and took over the presidency of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council in 2011 before successfully running for mayor in 2014.
In March of 2021, Walsh made the jump to the cabinet of president Joe Biden, where he has been serving as Secretary of Labor.
Despite those bona fides, Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet pointed out that there is some concern that Walsh received financial support during his time in the mayor’s chair in Boston from both Jeremy Jacobs — who owns the Boston Bruins and is the powerful chair of the NHL’s Board of Governors — and John Henry of Fenway Sports Group, which now owns the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But according to Steve Buckley of The Athletic, Walsh is not just a passionate sports fan and longtime Bruins season-ticket holder. He also grew up in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston with Kevin Hayes Sr., whose son Kevin Hayes Jr. currently plays for the Philadelphia Flyers and whose extended hockey family tree includes current New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald and brothers Matthew and Brady Tkachuk. Walsh is very well acquainted with hockey culture, especially in Boston, without having made his living previously inside the sport.
“We are excited to name Marty Walsh as the next Executive Director of the NHLPA,” said Kyle Okposo of the Buffalo Sabres, who was a key member of the NHLPA’s search committee. “Marty is a proven leader with a strong union background. His energy and ability to connect with players were immediately evident to the search committee. These were the very qualities we were focused on throughout our search for the next executive director. We look forward to the NHLPA’s future under Marty’s leadership.”
Two other candidates who were said to have put their names forward for the position, and who have much closer ties to the game, included former player Mathieu Schneider, who had been serving in the No. 2 role at the Players’ Association as the special assistant to the executive director, Fehr, as well as former player, agent and former Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis, who has been working with the Players’ Association as a consultant.
A key item on Walsh’s agenda will be to try to get NHL players back to the Winter Olympics in 2026 — a perk that the players negotiated into their current agreement, but which was scrubbed last year due to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. Active NHL players participated in five Olympiads, from 1998 to 2014, but league commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners have not been supporters of ongoing participation because they’ve been dissatisfied with the financial support they have received from the International Olympic Committee and because they dislike disrupting their schedule in February — typically a strong month for attendance and TV ratings after the NFL season has concluded and before baseball begins.
The current collective bargaining agreement is set to run through the 2025-26 season.
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