The East Coast Hockey League submitted its first-draft proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement last week, and to say that the players are less than thrilled might be the understatement of the year.
Around the ECHL, players are on the defensive and preparing for what could be a turbulent trip to the bargaining table in the coming months.
Many players predicted a bleak future for the league and hinted that a work stoppage could result under the owners' current plan.
"For a guy that's played seven years in the league, their proposal is basically a slap in the face," Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies veteran Stefan Rivard said. "The union is going to have to figure out what we're going to do, whether it's during this year or the beginning of next year. If a strike this year is what it's going to take to get something in place, then that's what we'll do."
ECHL President/CEO Brian McKenna submitted the league's proposal to Professional Hockey Players Association executive director Larry Landon, who called the plan "astounding."
By Friday, PHPA officials had contacted the player representatives from all 27 teams to inform them of the proposal. Landon said the reaction ranged from "shocked" to "insulted."
According to Landon, the ECHL is proposing several drastic changes to the current CBA, which expires May 31.
Among the most significant changes are:
A 30 percent salary cap reduction and elimination of player/assistant coaches, which allows teams to count half of a PA's salary against the cap.
The elimination of health insurance for players' families.
Reducing the league's veteran limit from four players to one.
A 12 percent decrease in per diem pay.
"They're talking about a salary cap going from $10,000 a week to $7,000 for 20 players," Landon said. "They want to see young men put their lives on the line for $350 a week. And with the veteran rule, they're saying they no longer want to recognize players who put this league on the map.
"We have a long way to go on this," Landon added. "I told (McKenna) there's no sense in me even responding."
Mississippi Sea Wolves veteran Steffon Walby said the owners are making a grave error by phasing out older players.
"As a veteran, I've always felt I'm not only on the ice to teach the game and develop young kids as hockey players, but to help develop young boys into men," Walby said. "(The owners) got dollars and cents in mind, but what about forming these boys into manhood as they go out in the community representing the team? If you don't have veterans telling them how, what type of product are they putting out in the community?"
When asked about the league's plan, McKenna said the goal is to continue evolving as a true feeder league for the AHL and NHL.
As a means to that end, eliminating some veterans to open spots for young players is a necessary evil.
"We don't want to be a destination league for older players," McKenna said. "That's a philosophy we've talked about to NHL and AHL clubs, and they see that as our niche, as a league for kids passed over in the draft."
While no formal bargaining sessions have been scheduled, McKenna hopes negotiations can begin in the coming weeks.
"That's why we (submitted the league's proposal) at this time, so hopefully we can get a meeting here in early March," McKenna said. "We don't want it to drag on through the summer."
Of all the player representatives interviewed, Walby was one of the few who thinks a strike is not an option. The current CBA contains a no-strike/no-lockout clause, which the players union violated last season during a one-day walkout over insurance issues.
"You can't act drastically," Walby said. "Cooler heads will prevail. In order to find a happy medium, you have to start somewhere. Unfortunately, the owners started low. We thought it would be closer."
ARKANSAS' VISION: The Arkansas RiverBlades have the ECHL's leading scorer in forward Buddy Smith, not to mention a growing fan base, first-rate arena and a new marketing plan being hailed by the league as visionary.
Above all, owner Max Hooper says the team is in Little Rock to stay, denying reports from league sources that the team might suspend operations. Talk of the Riverblades' demise, Hooper said, likely stems from a letter he wrote to the ECHL last July inquiring about the procedure for teams considering suspending operations.
Arkansas is one of the few teams in the league to increase attendance from last season. Through its first 26 home dates, attendance is up 9 percent from 2,951 a game to 3,216 this season.
According to Hooper, interest in the team is at an all-time high because of a better product on the ice and a unique marketing plan known as SportsVision.
"The idea is we go to local companies and provide a 12-month branding program," said Hooper, the director and senior vice president of Equity Broadcasting, which owns the RiverBlades, Arkansas Twisters arena football team and local radio and TV stations.
"Instead of buying a dasher board ad or a radio spot for hockey, then buying another from the Twisters, they buy a package that helps get their message out to different venues. It's a tremendous value. The response has been unbelievable."
OVER-UNDER: When Pee Dee Pride goalie Matt Underhill was learning his craft, there were two pretty good shooters on his bantam team helping him hone his skills - Tampa Bay Lightning stars Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards.
"Facing guys like that every day in practice, you can't help but improve," Underhill said.
Ultimately, the 23-year-old rookie's goal is to join his former mates in the NHL, but the former All-America from Cornell has learned the road to the top can be filled with bumps.
"I was drafted by Calgary, but things didn't work out," the Campbell River, B.C., native said. "I had a couple of good seasons at Cornell, but I didn't have any contact with the Flames, and I didn't get any offers to go to any AHL or NHL camps. I was surprised, but now I've just got to prove myself and hope I get a shot next year."
Underhill's play is becoming difficult to ignore. His .915 save percentage ranks in the top 10 in the ECHL and his 2.58 GAA was third in the league through Friday. He is 1-1-0 wit a .948 save percentahe and 2.02 GAA in two starts against the Lynx.
"He's one of those kids that is very driven and has goals in mind, and he won't stop until he reaches those goals," Pride coach Davis Payne said.
AROUND THE LEAGUE: The Johnstown Chiefs, a charter member of the ECHL in 1988, played their 1,000th game Saturday at home against the Toledo Storm. The team was hoping for its first sellout crowd since 1998, when 4,063 fans watched the Hanson Brothers from the film Slap Shot take part in a promotion during intermission. ... Former Roanoke Express coach Perry Florio, fired last month, was hired as interim coach for the rest of the season by the Anchorage Aces of the West Coast League on Thursday. The team fired coach Rod Davidson with 19 games left in the season. Anchorage will join the ECHL next season. ... The Louisiana IceGators, first in the Southwest Division, became the first team to clinch a playoff berth with a win over Pensacola on Wednesday. ... IceGators broadcaster Andy Davis, who played briefly for Div. III SUNY-Geneseo in upstate New York, was signed by the team as an emergency backup goalie.
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