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NHLPA boss Marty Walsh outlines early priorities in new role

TORONTO — Marty Walsh was a couple months short of his eighth birthday. He should have been out playing with friends. The youngster instead spent the winter of 1975 in hospital battling cancer. One day, however, a special visitor appeared.

TORONTO — Marty Walsh was a couple months short of his eighth birthday.

He should have been out playing with friends. The youngster instead spent the winter of 1975 in hospital battling cancer.

One day, however, a special visitor appeared.

"Bobby Orr," Walsh recalled Thursday of the Boston Bruins legend. "I got a chance to meet Bobby Orr and get an autograph.

"Just amazing."

Nearly 50 years later, Walsh is now in one of hockey's top jobs after taking over as executive director of the NHL Players' Association.

And his first order of business after being officially named Donald Fehr's successor last month is to meet the membership — and get a sense of their priorities and concerns.

"They deserve a leader that knows who they are," the former U.S. secretary of labor in President Joe Biden's cabinet said Thursday during his introductory press conference. "It's really understanding each other and knowing each other. 

"I'm a different type of leader."

Walsh, who also served as Boston mayor from 2014 through 2021, grew up in a household with strong union ties. His father and uncle were both members, drilling into him the importance of collective representation.

"Fortunate enough to get that fire in my belly," he said. "That shaped who I was as a person … never really forgot where I came from."

Walsh joins the NHLPA at a time when league revenues are projected close to US$6 billion, and as talks on a new collective bargaining agreement loom with the current deal set to expire in 2026.

"The players asked a lot about my style," Walsh said of the search committee's interview process. "The thing I really focused on was making sure I understand and know the membership.

"Not that I see them once a year and talk at them."

Set to turn 56 next month, he met recently with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

"We'll have a wonderful relationship as long as commissioner Bettman agrees with everything I say," Walsh quipped before turning serious: "As long as you mutually respect each other, there'll be a great opportunity here moving forward.

"We're in this together. But I represent the players."

He added he has a good relationship with the Jacobs family, who own of the Bruins and donated to his political campaigns.

"Supporting my campaign is one thing," Walsh said. "Using that as a way to leverage me is never going to happen."

Fehr's tenure saw NHL players participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics before the league was unable to reach an agreement in 2018. Plans for the 2022 Games were scraped because of COVID-19, but there's a commitment to go in 2026.

The NHL also initially hoped to resurrect the World Cup of Hockey, but the plan has been pushed back until at least 2025 due to Russia's international ban because of the war in Ukraine.

"A little early to talk about who's involved," Walsh said. "But I think we should get the tournament on paper and start the conversation moving forward on what this will look like."

The league and union negotiated the completion of the 2019-20 season during the pandemic, which included a long-term CBA extension.

Walsh said it was too early to get into the nuts and bolts of the NHL's economic system, which has included a hard salary cap since the 2004-05 lockout.

"We're talking about a contract negotiation that's 2 1/2 years away," he said. "I need to take some time to get a chance to talk to the players more about what they want to see out of me and out of us when we go to the bargaining table."

Bettman recently suggested the salary cap could nudge up beyond the projected US$1 million bump to $83.5 million in 2023-24 as players continue to pay owners back via escrow — the system that guarantees a 50/50 split of hockey-related revenue.

"When I get asked the question about whether I'd be interested in seeing the cap go up, my answer is 'Yes,'" Walsh said. "And my followup to that was that, 'The players are not interested in raising the escrow right now.'"

An LGBTQ advocate throughout his political career, Walsh was also asked about the small group of players who have declined to wear Pride-themed warmup jerseys across the league this season.

"Everyone has the right to make their own personal decision," he said. "But on the other side of that, I think we need to make sure people understand the game of hockey is an inclusive game.

"We welcome everyone."

The NHLPA's new boss made a point of differentiating himself from the union's past leadership on numerous occasions Thursday.

Most arrived with legal backgrounds. 

Walsh comes from another place.

"The labour world," he said. "I've been a labour leader, I'm a union member. My path has been a little different. I have lawyers around me to help me with the legal stuff we need, but I think when representing people, it's about representing them first, not the law. 

"I think that brings a little different uniqueness to me."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press