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Marty Walsh Has His Work Cut Out For Him

Bryan Park Charlestown Ma. Refurbishment Project 12-17-15 Media event unvailing finished project.
Steve Babineau/Getty Images

The people running organizations within the sports-entertainment industrial complex suddenly seem to be jonesing hard for Massachusetts politicians.  Not that this is a bad thing. I rather wish that the Hon. James Michael Curley had been named commissioner of baseball rather than that hatchet-faced old bigot Kennesaw Mountain Landis. (In 1919–20, Curley was between terms as Boston’s mayor and thus had time on his hands.) He would have given the eight Black Sox no-show jobs with the MTA and assigned them to the trolley lines serving the Fenway area, thereby softening the blow of losing that Ruth kid to the Yankees. The dynastic Boston Red Sox would have rolled on through the 1920s and Shoeless Joe Jackson would be in the Hall of Fame.

Anyway, in recent months, retiring Governor Charlie Baker took a job running the NCAA. And now, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is leaving his gig as Secretary of Labor to become the head of the National Hockey League Players Association. Better our politicians than those from, say, Florida, I guess, or Idaho but, at this point, I’m waiting for the announcement that Mike Dukakis has been hired to replace Dana White as president of the UFC.

Mayah Mahty is Boston to his bones. The son of Irish immigrant parents who didn’t arrive in town until the late 1950s, he survived childhood cancer. He got his B.A. from Boston College by going to night school. He got elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1997 and, in 2014, he was elected mayor of Boston. But his real career has been as a trades union man. He was an official of the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council, becoming its president in 2011. He resigned when he began his campaign for mayor. But he was an obvious choice for Secretary of Labor when Joe Biden was elected president in 2020.

Through it all, he’s been admirably open about his being a recovering alcoholic. And Walsh’s hockey bona fides are based, as so many Boston connections are, in the city’s basic geography. People are identified not only by neighborhood, but by the parish in which they grew up. Walsh grew up in St. Margaret’s—now, St. Teresa of Calcutta—in Dorchester. One of his neighbors was Kevin Hayes Sr., whose son plays for the Philadelphia Flyers, and whose relatives include the general manager of the New Jersey Devils, as well as Matthew and Brady Tkachuk. That’s the way almost everything works in Boston: The connections run through families, then parishes, then neighborhoods. And, given the city’s history with the NHL and its player agents, Marty Walsh may have come along to redeem the good name of one of the city’s unalloyed heroes who was among the victims in one of the greatest crime sprees in professional sports.

It’s impossible to overstate Bobby Orr’s stature in the history of professional hockey generally, and in the history of the Boston Bruins in particular. He almost single-handedly reinvented how defensemen play and, at his best and his healthiest, Orr was as sui generis an athlete as Julius Erving or Michael Jordan. 

He personally revived a Bruins franchise that was almost completely moribund prior to his arrival. And in 1970, Orr led Boston to its first Stanley Cup championship in 29 years, scoring the series-winning goal in the fourth game of the finals against the St. Louis Blues. Ray Lussier of the Boston Record-American immortalized the moment in one of the most iconic sports photos of the 20th century: Orr, tripped up by Blues defenseman Noel Picard, celebrating in midair, parallel to the ice, as the puck rebounds out of the net again past Hall-of-Fame goalie Glenn Hall, this time going the other way. 

From the start, Orr was advised by a Toronto lawyer named Alan Eagleson. Eagleson rose on Orr’s star to a position of power virtually unprecedented in professional sports since major-league baseball’s robber-baron period of the early 20th Century. With Orr’s talent and success as his entree, Eagleson founded the NHL Players Association in 1967 and was its first executive director. He was the man who created the Canada-Russia series, which opened the door for the influx of Russian and European players that would change the game forever. The 1972 Summit Series was won by Canada in seven games on a goal that guaranteed that Paul Henderson would never pay for a beer in Canada for the rest of his life.

While all this was going on, Eagleson was getting cozy with John Ziegler, the NHL’s largely vacant commissioner until, finally, union and management in the NHL consisted of one guy. Eagleson also rode Orr's star it into the thin air of major felonies. Thanks in part to some dogged reporting of the late Russ Conway of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in Massachusetts, it was revealed that Eagleson had been playing both ends against the middle for years. He’d embezzled pension money from his clients. He was taking a cut from insurance settlements won by players without telling them he was doing so.

Orr was one of Eagleson’s principal victims. At one point, Eagleson suckered him into accepting a contract to leave Boston and join the Chicago Blackhawks, He failed to inform Orr of a huge offer to stay in Boston by which Orr would receive 18 percent of the franchise. He also neglected to pay Orr’s taxes, leaving the star financially strapped. Orr, it should be noted, was very friendly with Russ Conway. Hockey owes them both a great deal.

Since then, the NHLPA has improved. (It could hardly have done otherwise.) It survived the truly idiotic lockout in 2005, which cost it an entire season, and the equally idiotic lockout in 2012, which cut the season in half. However, as Walsh took over his new job this week, he is still dealing with the fallout from both those episodes. The fallout was exacerbated by the adjustments that had to be made due to the pandemic, as Matt Porter of the Boston Globe explained: 

Commissioner Gary Bettman acknowledged at the general managers’ meetings near Palm Beach, Fla., this past week that the league was open to negotiating with Walsh’s NHLPA for an increase in the cap, which is on track to expand by $1 million to $83.5 million next season before merging back on the superhighway to riches. In a system in which owners and players split hockey-related revenues 50-50, players incurred debt during the hard times of the pandemic, earning their money even though fans weren’t buying tickets. 

As such, the salary cap has been mostly flat since 2020, after rising an average of 5.6 percent every year since its post-lockout installation in October 2005 (when it was $39 million). The league estimated the player debt — reportedly less than $150 million at this point — would be paid off by the fall of 2024, when the cap could rise by some 5 percent (to $87.5 million, then $92 million the season after that). But Bettman was open to negotiating more cap room.

Boston Globe

However, as Larry Brooks pointed out in the New York Post, Walsh now has to deal with season-killer commissioner Gary Bettman so, naturally, there is more than one joker in the deck:

General managers have been operating under extreme duress for the past four years during which the cap has increased just $3 million from $79.5M in 2018-19 to $82.5M this season because of the revenue-generating interruption created by the pandemic. It will increase to $83.5M next season unless, as stated by Gary Bettman at last week’s GM meeting, the PA gives something back. That would be the escrow cap the union gained during the 2020 CBA extension talks. “Inextricably linked,” said the commissioner. 

It is always a negotiation for the commissioner and never a collaboration. There is always a demand. As it now stands, the PA escrow debt to the league supposedly stands at around $100M. The commissioner, thus, is holding NHL general managers hostage for about $3M a team no owner would miss — and would be recouped the following season as per the MOU documenting terms of the extension.

New York Post

While heading the Department of Labor, Walsh helped avert a baseball strike and he helped to broker the deal that avoided a massive national railroad strike. The latter, however, came a’cropper when the railroad unions rejected the deal. When the president enforced it despite that rejection, and Walsh stood by his decision, he lost a little of his union cred. But, by background and experience, Walsh does bridge the gap between the NHL’s power structure and the people in the cheap seats, assuming there are any cheap seats any more. He is executive enough to sit through the toughest negotiations, and to strengthen the NHLPA as a bargaining unit, and he’s also still from St. Margaret’s, where he knew people who knew people who still skate their wings until their shifts end.

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