EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — As part of the NHLPA’s delegation of players in collective bargaining, Kevin Westgarth had a different lockout experience than most.
The former Los Angeles Kings enforcer, a 2007 graduate of Princeton, was the team’s player representative during collective bargaining agreement negotiations with NHL owners.
On Thursday, he took the ice with 17 of his teammates at the Toyota Sports Center for the first time since the lockout ended. After an upbeat 75-minute skate, he shared the experience of his participation in negotiating sessions with reporters. Portions of that discussion are below.
Q: Is it good to finally be back on the ice with your teammates and not in a board room or hotel conference room?
Kevin Westgarth: Yeah, for sure. It’s great to be here. It was interesting to go from full-bore, trying to figure out a deal to get us back on the ice to having that done and realizing that we have to be back on the ice in a few weeks. It was great. The guys in Raleigh, some of the Hurricanes — actually (former King) Peter Harrold was down there — there was a decent group, but clearly it’s never the same when you’re just trying to stay in shape, skate with six to eight guys and run a full practice. These aren’t just guys that we play with. These are our best friends, and it’s been a long time coming when you go through something like the playoffs last year, and then you don’t get to see each other.
Q: How about in the actual negotiating room, with the table itself — how much were you involved in the give-and-take between your side and the owners?
KW: There was definitely a number of times where we had, I guess, more frank discussions between where it would kind of — I don’t want to say ‘devolve’ — but it would maybe evolve into a bit more of a dialogue. . . . Clearly those comprehensive proposals that you hear about there — I’m sure you guys have gone through the bullet points, and the bullet points are 35 pages long. There were a ton of issues, and I give their side credit. They were always interested to hear what the guys had to say. Honestly, I’m sure as lawyers they kind of get talking at each other, so Gary (Bettman), Bill (Daly), and the owners especially would perk up when the guys would talk, and I think that that was an important part of the process, to hear from the horse’s mouth. Same thing for the owners. I think those player-owner meetings were a great opportunity to kind of be more frank with each other. While you’re still a little reserved and guarded, it was a much more open conversation than maybe we if we were going through Don (Fehr), and they were going through Gary. I think the players involved did an exceptional job, and like I said — Ron Hainsey kind of was our chairperson at the time in those meetings, and it was incredible to kind of see a guy — we’re just “dumb hockey players” — but then to see the guys in the room, it was pretty impressive.
Q: How would you describe the entire rollercoaster of that process? Did you want to bang your head on the wall at some times, and then be encouraged a lot of times?
KW: Being closer, I don’t think the rollercoaster was quite as intense. But clearly we’re all riding it. Like, you’d have a few days of positive talks, you know, like ‘this is really going somewhere, we could be back here pretty soon,’ and we definitely had that. You could point to different times — right before Thanksgiving there, obviously, and early December with the owner-player talks. It was always frustrating to come back to a table trying to make a deal, and then have the other side throw up their hands and walk away. It was obviously extremely frustrating, and I think it was great to see — the best thing I saw — was that our team stuck together the whole time, but not just our team, but all the players stuck together. That was the big difference. Through the lockout, every player on every team is part of a bigger team, but now, clearly it’s back to being an LA King and back to getting on the ice and trying to repeat.
Q: A lot of people have been talking, and it seems that it was all too predictable . . . that nothing serious would happen until the last minute. What are your thoughts on that?
KW: I think there’s definitely — we saw it with basketball, a bit — I think [there are] parallels between a lot of the major sports. The same law firm actually represents all four of the major sports. That’s kind of the lockout strategy now. Clearly, it’s yielded huge dividends for the owners. They’ve gotten to either get salary caps, or very much limit and control their costs. Again, like I said, it’s a world where we can live with it as players. In a month from today, nobody’s going to complain about what the deal is, because at the end of the day, we still get to play hockey for a living. There’s no question we’re incredibly lucky. We get incredibly well-paid to do it. But when these bargaining years come up, it’s incredibly important to have that kind of in-the-moment-appreciation of how important it is, because it has an impact on the whole league. We didn’t want to become the NBA where you have three guys that get paid $20 million bucks, and then the rest of the team’s at the minimum. Hockey doesn’t work that way, and I think we’re in a system that will allow that to maintain that kind of full team atmosphere. Los Angeles is a perfect example. Clearly we have some bigger money guys, but you kind of fill the roster all the way down with quality players and everybody’s part of the same whole. It’s that unity that makes hockey unique, and I think we did our best to preserve it, and I think that everybody should be happy for a long time.
Q: The other side — they’re talking about ‘the hill that we’ll die on’, and there were a lot of ultimatums, it seemed, and not even wanting to negotiate at times. ‘Take it or leave it.’ Do you feel that the NHLPA did a good job of staying composed and winning that PR battle?
KW: I’m old enough now to have seen the labor negotiations in pro sports over the last almost 20 years now, and never before had the players had more support in the media.. . . Most importantly, again, the players stayed patient and unified, and I think that the fans appreciated that. Obviously, everybody wanted to be on the ice. Fans don’t want to be sitting around watching Gary and Don talk at the lecterns in front of a bunch of reporters. The owners, for sure, wanted us to be playing in their buildings. They want to be making money. The right deal had to be there, and I think that with that — again, I want to keep moving forward — but I think going back to that first offer that the NHL made, it was just clear that they weren’t going to deal with this. They weren’t trying to make a deal off the bat. I think that it was obvious that we came to the table every time trying to make a deal. You know, it might not have been what the owners wanted to hear, and maybe they’re used to hearing that. But throughout the process — there’s nobody that’s evil. It’s just an unfortunate process of what is more than a sport is a major business. Clearly people see the worlds their own way, and you have to try to execute the best contract you can between the two parties. If each side had it their own way, I don’t think the NHL would survive. You have to have that give-and-take, and I think we’re at least to a place where both sides can live with it.
Q: Your name came up continuously throughout the negotiating process, probably more prominently than a lot of the other players. Tell us about what your role was at the bargaining table.
KW: I figured I’d try to be involved as much as I could. That just led to basically being involved. It was kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It wasn’t like I was hand-picked or anything. I was kind of willing to go up there and appreciated the importance of it — not that other guys didn’t — just, I just wanted to do it, basically. And kind of as the process went on and on, the same faces pop up. Clearly there were a ton of guys that deserve wackloads of credit, like George Parros, actually. Ron Hainsey. Chris Campoli. Matt Darche. The list goes on and on. Manny Malhotra. I don’t want to forget anybody here. There were a ton of guys that were really involved, and it’s very important to have the player involvement, because at the end of the day, Don Fehr and the staff of the PA is accountable to us. We’re trying to get the best feel that we can for what a membership with 750 people would want to do in a certain situation. I think we got to the point, and clearly the most important was that guys wanted the best deal we could while still having a season, and unfortunately like you were talking about, it got to this point. Based on kind of past history, I don’t think there was any other way about it. They were going to keep putting the pressure on, and seeing what more that they could get, and I’m sure we were doing the same thing from their point of view.
Q: Had you taken economics classes in college?
KW: Yeah, I took an econ class or two. But you’ve got to ask some questions and make sure you try to understand everything as best you can, and I think I had a pretty good handle. Most importantly, just going to the meetings and going through things a number of times. You didn’t need a college education to chip in, basically. Like, there were guys that had more poignant or thoughtful commentary on different issues than I did or Parros (also a Princeton grad) did. It really doesn’t matter. You needed that player input, and that was the most important thing, to see that guys were willing to do the work and step up for the rest of the membership.
Q: If you could characterize or summarize your role, whether it was hands on, hands off — what were your contributions, primarily, to the process?
KW: I. . . was the player most involved with the pension, and I think that is something we have trouble realizing the importance of. (Kings defenseman) Drew Doughty, [who] is 23 years old, I don’t think understands the importance of when you’re 62 . . .
Q: I mean, who thinks about that at that age?
KW: And that’s it. I’m 28, and I talk like I’m a wiz. It is incredibly difficult, and just basically listening to people smarter than me, I understand at least a little bit kind of how important it is. Getting this pension was a major win for this union, because talking to Murray Edwards, who is a guy I feel like I had a pretty good report with throughout the process — the owner of the Calgary Flames. Guys that have made millions of dollars — and say what you will about guys blowing money; I think everybody’s seen that (ESPN) 30for 30 ‘Broke’ — unfortunately, it happens. And if those guys have a bit of a safety net — that’s clearly not the only people it’s important for — but if those guys had a safety net, you’re only making these dollars for a very short period of time, so it’s important to try to maximize that, and that’s basically what a pension allows you to do. We got to a spot where I think that the pension is about as good as we can get it. That’s one of the big wins.
Jon Rosen of FOX Sports West and Gann Matsuda of Frozen Royalty asked the questions in this interview