The Generation That Built This League
The amazing thing about talking to NHL pensioners about the way in which their interests are not being represented at the table in current CBA as described in The Star today is that none really have much negative to say about today's owners or players.
Milt Schmidt, who is in limbo along with hundreds of former players about important Senior Benefits that require a new agreement between the NHL and NHLPA, says he's "grateful" for the decision in 2005 that gave players those benefits and doesn't resent modern-day players for the money they make.
"More power to 'em!" says Schmidt, a member of Boston's famed Kraut Line along with Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart. "I can thank the good game of hockey for everything I have."
None express bitterness over the fact that current players - Erik Cole is the latest example - talk in grand, vague terms about fighting for the rights of future players, but don't seem to have the same regard for the rights and needs of players who skated in the NHL in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Bob Nevin was one of six players in the Montreal hotel room back in 1967 when the NHLPA was first recognized by NHL owners.
"That union was hard fought for," he says. "But it ended up doing not as much as what we hoped for."
Nevin's pension for playing 1,128 NHL games is $8,500 a year.
"I remember Clarence Campbell saying we had the best pension in sports," says Nevin. "I'll remember that until the day I die. What was he talking about?"
At issue today is the monies owed players 65 and older as part of the Senior Benefit Plan established in 2005 by a letter agreement accompanying that year's collective bargaining agreement. The Senior Benefit is funded by $2 million annually from the NHLPA matched by the NHL. It is not legally part of their pensions nor part of the actual CBA, but it expired when the old CBA did.
Ex-players over the age of 65, or their surviving widows, receive $1,380 for every season played. Current NHL Alumni executive director Mark Napier is hoping to have the pool of money increased. Ex-players are owed their next payment in January, but without a new CBA, they may not get it.
Ex-Leaf Danny Lewicki says he hopes that today's players understand why they should support older players."I hope they realize what players went through for the love of the game," he says. "It wasn't for money, I can tell you that."
Lewicki remembers making his highest salary of $12,500 while with the New York Rangers, and then approaching GM Muzz Patrick for a $2,000 raise after a good season.
"Muzz threw me out of his office," says Lewicki.
Lewicki said he was pleased when the NHL and NHLPA agreed seven years ago to start jointly funding the Senior Benefit Plan, which expired when the current CBA expired Sept. 15.
"I was gratified, but surprised. Very surprised," he said.
Wally Stanowski, 93, says he used to "hate" the Leafs because of the "cheap" way in which the club dealt with its former players. He said he was approached by Ken Dryden to attend the closing of Maple Leaf Gardens, but he was in Mexico at the time and the offer quickly disappeared because he would have needed to have his flight expenses covered.
Stanowski said current Leaf GM Brian Burke has softened his view. He said when he was invited to drop the puck at a Leaf game two years ago, Burke gave him 12 tickets for his family and sent a chauffered car to pick him up.
"Burke changed my mind," said Stanowski.
Stanowski won a Memorial Cup in 1938 with the St. Boniface Seals, a team that had only 10 players and a budget of $800 to cover TWO seasons.
Stanowski, who played for the Leafs between 1939 and 1948, said the most he made with the Leafs was $5,000 in a season, out of which $900 was deducted for his pension and was supposed to be matched by the owners.
"But no team ever did it," he says. "They just washed their hands of it."
Schmidt, by the way, had a message for Stanowski when he heard that I was interviewing both for today's story.
"One night Bill Barilko hit me so hard that I did a complete somersault," said Schmidt. "I landed on top of Stanowski. So thank him for the soft landing, will you?"
Stanowski is a huge baseball fan, but says he rarely watches today's hockey.
"I think it's terrible," he said. "They keep shooting the puck in and going after it. What happened to possession?"
Dallas Smith, 71, says he worries that if the Senior Benefit Plan isn't renewed, that the Emergency Players Fund that helps players in desperate need might also be lost.
He cites the experience of the late Fern Flaman, who suffered from cancer at the same time his wife was dealing with dementia.
"He needed help," says Smith. "He got some, but not as much as he needed."
Like most, he doesn't really pick sides in the current lockout, although he says in his day he had to "fight for every nickle" he could get in salary.
"I don't really blame the owners," he says. "But I hope to God something happens with our benefits. I don't think that (Donald) Fehr cares."