32 Thoughts: What we learned about new NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh

Sportsnet's Luke Fox joins Hockey Central to discuss the introductory press conference for Marty Walsh as the new director for the NHLPA and how his attitude and political, rather than legal, background could bring a different voice to the union.

• Could the salary cap go up by more than $1M without changing escrow?
• What Mattias Ekholm thinks is different about playing with McDavid, Draisaitl
• Are fights after clean hits being officiated differently?

Marty Walsh’s much-anticipated introduction as the NHLPA’s newest executive director didn’t see him peeling paint, breathing fire or making grandiose promises. 

Aside from making it clear his constituency is not interested in raising its CBA-protected six-per-cent escrow ceiling in exchange for increasing next season’s salary cap by more than $1 million, Walsh avoided specifics on overall player wishes.

Asked if he thought it was his job or responsibility to build toward an NHL without a salary cap, he replied: “The CBA is a couple of years away, so I think we will be having conversations around everything that you have during a normal negotiation. I generally like to look forward, not backward. I know there’s a very complicated story of how we got to this point with the cap. I’m not looking at that … it’s, ‘What do the players want moving forward?’ That’s what my focus will be.”

“If you want to be a good, effective leader, you need to know your membership. That’s what I want to do.”

[brightcove videoID=6323655953112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

During the selection process, it appeared the players preferred someone who could represent them firmly and passionately while preferring to avoid further labour disruption (thank God). Repeatedly, Walsh made comments along the lines of, “We’re in this business together, but I represent the players.”

“If you don’t have the players, you don’t have the NHL,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to understand and respect them.”

Responses to other topics:

• Walsh declined to say if the World Cup could happen without Russian participation. “It’s too early to talk about right now. Let’s finalize when the tournament can be, how we can move the tournament forward. Then, we can have conversations about what the circumstances are in the world and challenges that might be in front of us.” 

[brightcove videoID=6323658512112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

• He walked the line on players wearing Pride jerseys, saying, “The LGBTQ community shouldn’t feel hockey players are turning their back on (them),” while adding, “If a player doesn’t want to wear a jersey in warmup, they shouldn’t be forced to.”

Although he correctly pointed out a “supermajority” of the players are wearing them, the controversy over the few who haven’t and teams that made decisions for their rosters led commissioner Gary Bettman to suggest it’s something that will have to be evaluated in the offseason.

Does Walsh believe any jerseys should be mandatory?

“I want to talk to players about that,” he said. “See how they feel … and then with the league as well.”

As for the idea that any player who misses warmup shouldn’t be able to play, Walsh wouldn’t go there: “No, I don’t think that should be the case at all.”

It’s fair to wonder if more online “culture war” topics will spill into hockey. As former mayor of Boston and U.S. Secretary of Labor, Walsh recognizes that no matter what he says, people are going to dislike it. But, “As far as the game of hockey, it’s important that we are inclusive. People know they are welcome to be part of the game, we want them to be part of this game. Social media is going to be social media, people are going to use (their) platform to say whatever they want, and that’s fine. But I do think it’s important for us to be an inclusive game.”

[brightcove videoID=6323658718112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

• He’s meeting with Arizona players next week. “There’s a few concerns. The salary cap, but also the (new arena) ballot initiative. They’re playing in a college arena. These are National Hockey League players. They should be playing in a good, strong arena.

“If (the vote) doesn’t go the right way, what happens? It’s something that needs to be addressed pretty quickly.”

• On the investigation into the 2018 Hockey Canada gala, Walsh would only say, “I can’t really get into details on that.” He added he didn’t know if any clarity is imminent. 

[brightcove videoID=6323655744112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

• He has spoken to Connor McDavid, but not yet Sidney Crosby. He didn’t seem to want to take time from anyone still battling to make the playoffs. He met with NHL Alumni leader Glenn Healy, both vowing to work together. 

• He said the “first thing” he brought up to the NHLPA’s executive board was political donations from Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs — chairman of the NHL’s board of governors — and Pittsburgh owner John Henry. There is a split on this topic, but some agents and ex-players feel very strongly that, because of the union’s history, any conflict of interest is extremely concerning.

“In my career, I’ve raised millions and millions and millions of dollars, and the money that was raised by those two organizations — or those individuals in those organizations — is not even a per cent of what I raised over my time,” he said. “No one can accuse me of using political donations as a way to give back favours. I’m not going to be swayed by a political contribution that happened seven years ago. 

“Those are good things to have, relationships. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to jeopardize my job representing hockey players.”

That’s as much fire as Walsh flashed, but even then he was calm. No one becomes Boston’s mayor without being able to brawl, but he kept the brass knuckles in his pocket.

“It is about a partnership,” he said. “Some people say that growing the league, growing the game, is in the hands of the NHL … I believe growing the game is in the hands of all of us.”


1. Two more notes on Walsh/NHLPA. One of the criticisms of previous union leadership was the lack of a succession plan and an unclear exit strategy. Asked if he sees this job as his long-term future (there have been rumours he would eventually go back into politics), Walsh revealed he signed for a “few years.” Is the over/under five? “The under’s five,” he answered with a smile.

2. A few sources among both teams and agents have indicated they believe there’s a deal to be made that could increase the cap closer to $2 million without affecting the players’ escrow number. Their estimates are based on what they’ve heard revenues are and will be. The NHL and NHLPA can agree to raise the cap more than $1 million, even if all debt isn’t yet paid. Has that been presented to Walsh? “No, it hasn’t been presented to me, but it sounds good,” he said, laughing. “When the time is right, we’ll have those conversations.” 

3. The NBA held a board of governors meeting Tuesday in New York. That night, according to multiple sources, Bettman had dinner with Ryan Smith, owner of the Utah Jazz. This is one to watch. When Fenway bought the Penguins, Smith was rumoured as another potential purchaser. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but I was told to keep his name on my radar, because he’s interested in the NHL — and the NHL is very interested in him.

A very, very sharp guy, he and New Jersey Devils co-owner David Blitzer are majority partners in MLS Real Salt Lake and, earlier this month, announced the return of a NWSL franchise to the city. Salt Lake City hosted the excellent 2002 Winter Olympics and is considered the favourite to do it again in 2030. That could lead to new facilities, including a future home for the NBA team and an NHL brother.

Smith’s wife, Ashley, also listed as an owner of the Jazz, told the Salt Lake Tribune at last month’s successful NBA All-Star weekend, “I think about the opportunity to showcase Utah. We’re massively passionate about it. What a cool opportunity for everyone else to see what we see. We kind of have it all here. That’s what I always say: Utah has it all.” There’s a strong hockey history in the region, and Utah’s capital city is among the fastest-growing in the U.S.

4. One NHL executive said that anyone eventually wishing to replace Bettman as NHL commissioner should be watching what is happening with AHL president Scott Howson. “This is about power and control,” the exec said. Howson replaced Dave Andrews, who led that league for 26 years with an iron fist. One of the problems is that some owners hoped to have more say once Andrews retired, and fissures developed when Howson wasn’t so easily pliable.

According to several sources, at an executive board ownership meeting last week, there was no commitment to extending his contract, which is up after next season. It’s not exactly along NHL-owned vs. locally owned lines (21 of 32 teams are owned by their parent), but that’s a reasonable picture. That’s why the NHL’s involvement is going to be critical in determining the outcome. They weren’t thrilled to find out what was happening until later in the process, and generally feel the relationship works very well.

There’s talk about more of a marketer or business person in that position, but the league is very, very healthy. League revenues are up 50 per cent since 2018-19 (the last full season before COVID) and team ticket revenues are up around 20 per cent. Henderson (Vegas) and Coachella Valley (Seattle) are big successes. Like many minor pro leagues, the AHL faced an existential crisis during COVID. It survived and is thriving. Very weird, and, if this happens, a sign that whoever goes in next should ask for a lot of guaranteed term and moolah.

5. Sure sounds like the Calgary players had a true come-to-Jesus meeting after the horrible 8-2 loss March 20 in Los Angeles. No more whining, publicly or privately. Do your job, play hard, push for the playoffs. They are 3-1 since, two points back of Winnipeg — with a huge meeting looming next Wednesday in the Manitoba capital.

[brightcove videoID=6323658634112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

6. A few years ago, I asked Adam Mair how Lindy Ruff had changed during the coach’s 16 years in Buffalo. He told a story about how the Sabres had a road trip to Florida and Tampa Bay. The players asked for an extra day to golf. Ruff thought about it, said yes, but made it very clear that, in exchange the players owed him two wins. Mair said that was something Ruff never would have considered earlier in his tenure.

I thought of that story Tuesday night when Rick Bowness had his disappointed, eye-rolling postgame in San Jose. After their game in Los Angeles last Saturday, the players received an extra day in southern California. Winnipeg had great chances during their 3-0 loss to the Sharks, James Reimer made some ridiculous saves, but it was a hard, hard night for everyone involved with the Jets. 

[brightcove videoID=6323572123112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

7. Nothing that happened in Ottawa’s thrilling 5-4 victory over Philadelphia on Thursday is going to deter Ryan Reynolds — or any of the other hopeful buyers in attendance — from purchasing the Senators. They outshot the Flyers 46-11, blew a 4-1 lead, won in overtime on an emotional, intense, electrifying night where Nic Deslauriers was ready to fight anyone with a K2K postal code.

On a flight to Dallas last week, a fellow traveller named Scott, who works in the financial sector, said, “Heaven is when you have a deal, hell is trying to close a deal.” It’s a great line. As the bidders get a closer look at the game-day operations, talk to government officials and the NHL validates financial packages, one thing to keep an eye on is if any of these bids consolidate. Some are reportedly bringing in new partners but, similar to a political leadership race, will any of those falling behind or uncomfortable with the purchase price consider joining — or be asked to join — other groups?

8. Suddenly, there are questions about where a new rink could be and debate about the size of the “footprint” at LeBreton Flats. Apparently, there’s another seven-acre-ish parcel of land at LeBreton Flats that could also be available for purchase. Question is cost.  

[brightcove videoID=6323481206112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

9. Only bad news for Ottawa: the injuries, with head coach D.J. Smith saying Derick Brassard and Travis Hamonic are “not good.” Do not like what I’m hearing on Brassard, who played his 1,000th game on March 2.

10. A few listeners asked about something in the Jay Woodcroft podcast interview. Woodcroft confirmed the Oilers declined to pursue a particular player at the trade deadline because he felt someone already on the roster could fill the role. I believe the player Woodcroft believes in was Vincent Desharnais.  

11. Mattias Ekholm provided a piece of interesting insight into playing with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He said there are moments in games where you are conditioned to let things settle, but not in Edmonton. One example is going behind your own net with time as the lines are changing. The regular play is to wait for everyone to get where they’re supposed to go, but Ekholm’s learned that, when you have two nuclear weapons, you get it to them as quick as possible, even if it seems counterintuitive.

“I have to turn (my vision) up-ice much faster than I’m used to,” he said. Ekholm added that, sometimes, when it’s a scramble in your own zone, you might try to calm it down if you can. Again, he’s noticed that those are the moments McDavid/Draisaitl are even more dangerous because structure is gone. You have to find them — or put it in an area they can get it — right away.  

12. Ekholm admitted his Nashville goodbyes were emotional. Before flying to Alberta, Filip Forsberg and wife Erin surprised him at the airplane hangar — with a gift of Swedish chocolate. Not only is that an excellent gesture, but it’s worth getting traded if Swedish chocolate is the consolation prize.

13. Team Canada world championship GM Doug Armstrong watched the Philadelphia-Ottawa game with Claude Julien — who coached this country at the 2022 Olympics.

14. Last Saturday, Jeff Marek discussed some CHL free agents who could get NHL contracts. One I wanted to highlight was OHL Barrie’s Evan Vierling, the second pick of the 2018 Ontario draft behind Quinton Byfield. Vierling needed time to deal with mental health and anxiety issues during his time in Flint. The Rangers recognized his talent and took a chance (which Vierling appreciated) with the 127th pick in 2020 NHL Draft, but didn’t sign him. This season, he played for Columbus in the Traverse City Rookie tournament and then finished with 37 points in his last 16 games for the Colts. As the playoffs begin, we will see where he ends up, but I like to see these stories end well.

15. One NCAA free-agent decision that surprised was Cornell defenceman Sam Malinski picking Colorado. You see Cale Makar and Josh Manson long-term on the right side and wonder. Looking into it a bit further, there was real credit for AHL Colorado Eagles coach Greg Cronin, and the kind of development he provides.

16. Arnprior, Ont.’s David Silye is graduating after three years at Minnesota State (Mankato). It will be interesting to see if he goes professional or re-enters school. And another I’m watching is Skyler Brind’Amour. Taken 177th in 2017 by Edmonton, he’s in the Frozen Four with Quinnipiac. The Oilers have a choice to make on signing him, and the vultures are circling if they do not. Best asset: “He’s a Brind’Amour, so you know how hard he’s going to play.”

17. I think we’re going to see more of NCAA Denver head coach David Carle in international hockey. Soon.

18. ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported on some up-and-coming coaches. Two names to watch for: Jason Payne at ECHL Cincinnati, where the Cyclones stand second overall, with 95 points in 64 games. And Matt McIlvane from Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. It is believed McIlvane is on Anaheim GM Pat Verbeek’s radar, and could be coaching AHL San Diego next season.

19. Personal World Cup solution: do the opening round and quarterfinals in September 2024, right before training camp. Then, hold the semifinal and final instead of the All-Star Game in February 2025. Yes, you run the risk of Canada or the United States losing early — eliminating that pool of players from a showcase weekend. If that happens, some can be invited to the event to shake hands, take selfies, kiss babies and replace Kevin Bieksa on in-game panels.

Selfishly, I want it for my own excitement. But it’s not just about the entertainment value, it’s about growth. Let’s be creative. Let’s find a way. Remind ourselves of what we have, not what we are missing. Go ahead and argue whether the Olympics or the World Cup is a better vehicle; we absolutely cannot continue to have “not both.”

20. In November, during Hall of Fame weekend, Mats Sundin was on JD Bunkis’ radio show, discussing how big it was for his country to have three Swedes inducted at once. “We can’t forget that Sweden is such a small country,” Sundin said. “I don’t think we have more registered hockey players today than we did maybe 30 years back. For the sport of hockey in Sweden, it is huge … that’s a fantastic accomplishment. It’s very important for the next generation of players we try to recruit into the great sport of hockey.”

I’ve thought a lot about this quote. Sweden is one of hockey’s cornerstones — Olympic gold medallist in 2006, silver medallist in 2014. I don’t like hearing it. If you’re not growing, you’re going backward. I tend to ignore ratings, because I’ve seen co-workers driven insane by the emotional rollercoaster of living and dying with them, but the numbers are relevant for this argument.

Per Front Office Sports, 62 million people in Japan (half of the households in the country) watched their baseball heroes defeat South Korea 13-4 in the World Baseball Classic. Then, 48.7 per cent of the country watched the 9-3 quarterfinal win over Italy. Sixty-two per cent of Puerto Rican households watched their team beat the Dominican Republic, 5-2. The Czech Republic had its highest baseball television audience (240,000) for the game against Japan. Chinese Taipei’s games averaged 1.3 million, the most-watched sports programming there in almost two years.

How many fantastic viral moments were there of game-winning calls from those countries? We’re North American. We look at the world through our lens. But there’s so much more out there. That’s the big picture we need to see — especially in hockey. We badly need those eyeballs on our best in meaningful international competition. 

21. Another three-on-three consideration from this month’s GM meetings: not allowing teams to skate or pass the puck back over the red line once you’ve gained the opposing blue line. No penalty for doing so, but a whistle, a defensive-zone faceoff for the guilty party and no line-change allowed. 

22. No rule changes came out of the GM meetings, but there absolutely is a change to one way the game is being officiated. Managers didn’t specifically ask for the instigator to be applied if a player was forced to fight after a clean hit, but they did ask for greater emphasis on making sure the right team ended up with a power play in these situations.

Colleague Sean Reynolds pointed out that after Winnipeg’s Sami Menalainen cleanly hit McDavid on March 4, Darnell Nurse took offence and Adam Lowry stepped in. Nurse got an extra two. On March 13, Dallas’s Radek Faksa went after Vancouver’s Noah Juulsen following a clean hit; Faksa received the extra two. On March 18, Nashville’s Cal Foote took exception to Brenden Dillon’s hard, but clean, hit on Luke Evangelista. Foote did get an instigator. There’s a new trend here, that these aren’t to be evened-out.

23. When Evangelista was called up by the Predators, he was told it was to give him a one-game taste. A month later, he’s got nine points in 16 games. Still eating.

24. At the meetings, senior vice-president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom said there’ve been about 225 puck-over-glass calls this season, and three were incorrect. That’s very impressive, but I’d still like to see it reviewed. If you’re a podcast listener, you know that I base almost all my thinking on, “Do I want to see the Stanley Cup decided this way?” — and I’d hate to see an improper call determine a championship.

One exec is still annoyed about Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s second-round Game 2 puck-over-glass call from 2013, which helped Los Angeles turn a 3-2 deficit in the last two minutes to a 4-3 win. The Kings won that series in seven games, while Vlasic maintained the puck hit Jeff Carter. Not sure where this (and “friendly fire” high sticks) is going to go, but I heard the preference is for it to be a coach’s challenge rather than an automatic league review.

I don’t believe the NHL desires longer games or more replay delays without the threat of consequence. This will drive at least one coach insane; he strongly believes the goal should be to get the call right rather than punish someone for thinking there’s a legitimate chance it is incorrect. 

25. As the Panthers chase the playoffs, owner Vinny Viola is seeking another victory. Forte is the current Kentucky Derby favourite, winner in four of his last five races.

26. Wanted to close this week’s blog with a note about Shane Brown, who passed away last week. Shane started at The Score while I was there. He was very quiet, very serious — until the subject was wrestling. He loved it and knew it. He knew so much about it that when we needed commentators, the decision was made to give him a shot. I remember at the time there was some concern about it because of how quiet he was. Would he freeze on-air? The answer, of course, was no. I liked that Shane got the opportunity because of his knowledge, passion and work ethic. That’s the way it should be. We weren’t close, but I always respected that passion. Very sorry to hear of his loss. All the best to his family.

Looking for more 32 Thoughts? Check Sportsnet.ca for more later in the week, when Elliotte Friedman shares the latest.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.