The NHL Players’ Association has a new top boss.
On Thursday, the organization confirmed what had been much speculation in recent weeks – that former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh would take the reins as the union’s new executive director.
“I am honored to have been selected as Executive Director of the NHLPA. By accepting this offer, I pledge to do everything in my power to stand up for the players,” Walsh said in a statement. “My years of experience in the labor movement and in public life has taught me that the job is never about me. It’s about us. It’s about the people we serve.”
Walsh, 55, will begin his new role in mid-March. He succeeds Donald Fehr, who has served as chief executive since 2010, guiding the players through two rounds of collective bargaining.
The first saw a four-month lockout early in the 2012-13 season before players complied with owner demands that the players’ share of hockey-related earnings be reduced from 57% to 50% under the NHL’s harsh salary cap system.
A CBA renewal came in July 2020 as part of a letter of intent that outlined a framework for the NHL’s return to play after the league’s hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic four months earlier. The agreement put the NHL back on the ice, but the subsequent imbalance between hockey-related revenue and player spending has essentially stagnated the salary cap — limiting player earning power even as owner franchise values have skyrocketed.
While the NHLPA voted to find a new executive director last April, Fehr’s tenure has been one of relative prosperity and stability in the often tumultuous NHL world. From 2013 to 2020, players and teams saw steady pay rises, the addition of two new successful new expansion franchises (the Vegas Golden Knights and the Seattle Kraken), and with them almost 50 new jobs. And only one franchise has moved — and that came early in Fehr’s tenure (Atlanta to Winnipeg, 2011).
Walsh was identified as a candidate for the job by executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, which was brought on board by the NHLPA’s seven-member Search Committee last August. While the committee did its best to keep its search as private as possible, word trickled out that it was hoping to recommend a candidate from outside the hockey world and with a strong background in the job market.
Walsh was a laborer himself. He received his first union badge in 1988 and became president of Boston’s Laborers Local 223 at age 21. He was first elected to the Boston House of Representatives in 1997 and chaired Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council in 2011 before running for mayor in 2014 ran.
In March 2021, Walsh made the leap into President Joe Biden’s cabinet, where he served as Secretary of Labor.
Despite those good deeds, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman pointed out that there are some concerns that Walsh received financial support from both Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and powerful chairman of the NHL Board of Governors during his tenure as Boston mayor — and John Henry of Fenway Sports Group, which now owns the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But according to Steve Buckley of the athlete, Walsh is not only a passionate sports fan and longtime Bruins season ticket holder. He was also raised in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with Kevin Hayes Sr., whose son Kevin Hayes Jr. currently plays for the Philadelphia Flyers, and to his extended hockey pedigree, New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald, and brothers Matthew and Brady Tkachuk belong. Walsh is very familiar with hockey culture, particularly in Boston, without having played the sport for a living before.
“We are excited to name Marty Walsh as the next Executive Director of the NHLPA,” said Kyle Okposo of the Buffalo Sabers, who was a key member of the NHLPA’s selection committee. “Marty is a proven leader with a strong union background. His energy and ability to connect with players were immediately apparent to the selection committee. We focused on exactly these qualities when we were looking for the next managing director. We look forward to the future of the NHLPA under Marty’s leadership.”
Two other candidates who are said to have suggested their names for the position and who are much more closely associated with football were former player Mathieu Schneider, who had served in the No. 2 role at the Players’ Association as Special Assistant to the Managing Director, Fehr, as well as former Vancouver Canucks player, agent and former general manager Mike Gillis, who has worked with the Players’ Association as a consultant.
A key item on Walsh’s agenda will be an attempt to bring NHL players back to the 2026 Winter Olympics — a benefit the players negotiated in their current agreement but scrapped last year due to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. Active NHL players competed in five Olympiads from 1998 to 2014, but league commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners were not proponents of ongoing participation because of dissatisfaction with the financial support they have received from the International Olympic Committee and because they do not dislike the break in their schedule in February — usually a strong month for attendance and TV ratings after the NFL season ends and before baseball begins.
The current collective agreement runs until the 2025/26 season.