As the NHL enters a new century, there has been much discussion and debate about the current state of the league's finances, which has many fans of the game worried. So many teams are losing money, yet player salaries continue to spiral ever upward. While the NHL Board of Governors (read: the owners) are portrayed in the media as attempting to find ways to solve the current fiscal mess, the players - under the banner of the NHLPA - are being reflected as selfish greedheads who care only about making a buck. They seem unwilling to work with the league and ownership toward finding a suitable arrangement (notably through the use of a salary cap).
Many NHL fans are left scratching their heads over this behaviour, unable to comprehend where this attitude from amongst the players is coming from. Could the press and ownership be right? Are the players too greedy? To a degree, yes. But the rationale for the players actions runs much deeper than most hockey fans realize. In order to get a better understanding behind all this, and to better understand how the NHL reached this situation in the first place, the 1992 book "Net Worth" is a must-read.
Exhaustively researched and well-written, Net Worth is a revealing and controversial look at the history of player-management relations from the inception of the NHL to the players strike of 1992. The book opens with a 1989 meeting of former NHL greats like Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and many others, organized by former Toronto Maple Leaf Carl Brewer. It documents the stuggle of these former players to organize and lobby for an investigation into their pension fund, as well the the lack of support from then-active NHL stars, and the stone-walling attempts of then-NHL president John Ziegler and NHLPA boss Alan Eagleson. Told for years their pension scheme was the best in pro sports, the former players realized over time it was, in fact, probably the lowest paying pension plan in all sports.
It then looks back into the 1920s and 30s, when Jim Norris, a tycoon who made his fortune in the wheat trade and loved sports, owned the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and the New York Rangers, as well as floated the Boston Bruins for a time. Because of his "one-man rule", Norris cast a huge shadow of influence upon the NHL in it's early days. There is an examination of the Detroit Red Wings organization, in particular that of "Jolly" Jack Adams, the coach and GM. His treatment of players during his long tenure with the team would make today's GMs and coaches appear benevolent by comparison. In those days, players lived in fear of being sent down to the minors, possibly never to return to the NHL, and would play through or hide injuries to ensure they would remain in the NHL. Adams was a master of playing on this fear, and was said to once carry train tickets to the Wings minor-league farm club in his vest pocket, ready to dispense them upon players he deemed not working hard enough.
Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe was another successful, but ruthless, character who was cut from the same manipulative cloth. Together they, and other NHL GMs, worked to keeping players salaries a closely-guarded secret, as well as keeping them as low as possible. In the 1950s and 60s, it was not uncommon for some NHL players to spend their off-season working on construction sites or on beer delivery trucks to make ends meet, so low were their wages. These owners made certain they hired a league president who would be little more than a figurehead and wouldn't interfere. Thus the reasoning for Clarence Campbell's long reign as an ineffective league president.
Attempts by the players to improve their lot were often met with hostility by the ownership. When Detroit Red Wings team captain Ted Lindsay attempted to organize the players into forming a player's union to improve their wages, it was ruthlessly and brutally smashed by the owners, led by Conn Smythe. For the Red Wings, the fallout would send them on a long, slow decline from league supremecy that would take forty years to return to. Lindsay was traded to Chicago, then the league's worst team, to play out his career. Habs great Doug Harvey would eventually be dealt to the New York Rangers in a move many believed was punishment for his role as Lindsay's "co-conspirator".
While the plight of NHL players was bad enough, for those in the minor leagues, it was even worse. The authors look at the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League, who were owned by former Boston Bruins star Eddie Shore for many years. Shore's reputation was, and still is, legendary. Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry, who once played for the Indians, called Shore "the Darth Vader of hockey". His players were poorly paid, and made to do menial chores around the arena, which Shore also owned. While some of his training techniques would prove ahead of their time, most were either bizarre or downright cruel. There would be little the players could do about their plight, as Shore's son-in-law was also the AHL president.
The authors then provide a look at Alan Eagleson's rise to prominence, first gaining his reputation for "slaying the dragon" Eddie Shore by organizing the Indians players and threatening to strike unless their demands for better wages and treatment were met. When Shore seemed to capitulate, Eagleson's reputation was made. He was close friends with several star players on the 1960s Toronto Maple Leafs, who despite their Cup success were chafing under the dictatorial Punch Imlach. From there, he made his first true mark as a player agent by representing Bobby Orr. Eagleson was so well thought of that he was named president of the newly-formed National Hockey League Players Association.
While Eagleson seemingly was working on the players behalf, the book describes in great detail he was in fact in cahoots with the league governors, conspiring to keep players salaries "affordable". It would be the rival WHA that would increase players salaries more than Eagleson's handiwork. "The Eagle" had his hand in everything from being a player agent with over 150 clients (which was a clear conflict of interest to his role as NHLPA president) to organizing international tournaments to end-board advertising to having his hand in a clothing store which he would recommend his clients shop for suits at.
The role of other agents are also examined by the authors, showing how involved they are in their respective client's lives. This is both a rewarding and thankless job. Some have built up a strong client list and earned much respect, but at the same time, they're pilloried by both players and management. Some are so involved in their players lives they literally have to help them tend to basic needs. There is also an examination of the road to the NHL by junior players, exemplified by the path taken by Eric Lindros, and the controversy his refusal to play for the Sault-Ste-Marie Greyhounds and the Quebec Nordiques met with in the press and in the respective leagues.
The latter part of the book deals with the players eventual awareness that all was not well, both for active players with their salaries - especially when compared to other sports - and for former players and their pensions. A showdown is held during the annual player association meeting in Florida, when the players finally face down Eagleson and force his resignation. It then deals with the circumstances that led to the players strike of 1992, and how the league embarrassed itself with it's futile pleas of poverty, which would be turned against them by several players, agents and reporters.
The one recurring theme throughout Net Worth is just how much, and for how long, NHL players past and present have been taken advantage of by ownership, with the blessing of the league hierarchy. Taking advantage of the players naivety and gullibility, they rode to rich profits while fooling their players into believing the NHL was barely surviving. While the book finishes with the aftermath of the strike of 1992, it's easy to see the seeds were sown for the situation the NHL finds itself in today. There are many active players today who were playing during the strike, and the ill-fated 1995 lockout by ownership. Their distrust of the league hierarchy has been well established. Is it any wonder today's players refuse to accept the NHL's party line they're losing money?
The players come by their distrust honestly. The ownership has little excuse for their actions and motives. Net Worth ends in 1992, but it's still as relevant now as it was when it was first published nearly ten years ago. It is, without a doubt, one of the best books ever written about professional hockey, and highly recommended for any fan who loves the game.