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A History of Unions and the Function of the NHLPA

Is the NHLPA asked to do too much for former players? Who should be responsible for helping them?

Owners And Players Meet To Discuss NHL Lockout Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After TSN aired a short documentary on former first overall pick Joe Murphy, who is currently homeless in Kenora, there has been an outcry about why the NHLPA is not doing anything to help him. However, it is not that straight forward and while it can be argued that the NHLPA is not doing enough to help NHLers, it should also be argued that it is not the responsibility to help retired players.

First and foremost, I am a part of an organized union (Manitoba Teacher’s Society) and I also possess a history degree from the University of Winnipeg where I focused on more recent history.

History of Unions

To understand the role and function of the NHLPA, you have to understand the history of unions themselves. Unions are the child of the Industrial Revolution which started in the mid to late 1700s (1760 is widely accepted as the start date). It took until roughly 1880 for a union to form. What was the purpose of unions?

Early on, workers had no rights and were often kept in dangerous spaces doing dangerous jobs with no regulation and low wages which were designed to suppress workers because they had to work so much to make ends meet, they could not plan any protests. Furthermore, these jobs were so menial that anyone could be hired off the street to do them meaning workers had to stay in line. One of the seminal books which helped spearhead the change is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. The Jungle is a fictional, but accurate story about one families struggles as meat packers in Chicago. The story not only shone a light on the working conditions, but of the lack of regulation in industry in general and led to many changes with regulatory bodies.

However, The Jungle did not spur the formation of unions as that happened earlier. As the working class grew and started working in factories instead of on the farm, they started to gain power in numbers and realized that they could work together to get better working conditions. I do not have my notes from first year university anymore, but I do know that early unions were unions like Industrial Workers of the World union who advocated for better safety regulation for factory workers. Beyond that, they advocated and negotiated for better wages the forty hour work week. Over time they achieved these goals and more.

The NHLPA was formed fairly recently in 1967 to advocate for players properly. Now, one of the major players in forming the union was a crook, Alan Eagleson, who defrauded many players including Bobby Orr. The NHLPA was formed at a time when players still worked summer jobs and did not make huge salaries, so the NHLPA was very important to keeping a safe working environment for the players and giving them someone to advocate for them. Now, they not only have their union, but their agents who can also advocate for their individual needs.

Function of a Union

How does all this tie into the NHL and NHLPA? The NHLPA is the player’s union. Most unions are only there for their current workers. MTS if for all teachers including substitutes and teacher-candidates. Other unions are there to ensure that their workers are paid a fair wage and provided a safe working environment. While some unions have gained more power and seemed to have moved away from these goals, this was their original goal and their underlying purpose.

Unions handle negotiations with their employer negotiate benefits that include sick time, bereavement time, health care, and pension in a new contract. If the union is strong, it can go into a negotiation and come out with a favourable contract for their employees. There are some cases like with MTS where only small portions of their workers are represented at a time because the working conditions vary so much from division to division. This is normal and fair. Now, for the NHL and NHLPA.


The NHLPA (as well as the NBAPA and NFLPA) are unique unions in North America as they are seen as responsible for players who have retired or left the game. This means that beyond the 713+ players in the NHL that the NHLPA is responsible for, they are also asked to ensure that NHL alumni are taken care of. This is an odd arrangement as retired players no longer pay union dues and are still given access to union services which in this case include services like counselling.

A better way for alumni players to be able to access services would be through the NHL Alumni Association. The problem with the NHL Alumni Association is it is underfunded and almost neglected by both the NHL and the NHLPA. They would be the ideal organization to provide supports, including employment counselling, to retired players. If the NHL and NHLPA properly funded and staffed the NHL Alumni Association and made it a working branch whose job it was to help players transition from professional sports into the “real world”, players might have an easier time in dealing with the jarring change.

If there is a professional organization there to support players when they move on from playing, it is more likely they will succeed. Right now, players who fall under the NHLPA’s jurisdiction might have access to employment insurance (EI) and the benefits that come with it beyond money like employment counselling, but even if they do, it would not hurt the NHL and NHLPA to provide these services to players at their request. There could even be a fund started for alumni who want to do some training so they have employable skills, but who made AHL money for their career and need some help to get there. There is enough money for these types of services if the NHL and NHLPA care.

There are issues beyond employment after hockey for players and some of those are slowly making their way to court in the form of a class-action lawsuit against the NHL to do with what they knew about the long-term affects of concussions and if they were colluding with the NHLPA to not give players the full picture as early as 1998. This would be a failure of the NHLPA if they withheld important medical information from the very people they were supposed to advocate for. How this ends remains to be seen.


TSN shone a light on a single story, Joe Murphy’s, and while Murphy’s plight is difficult to watch, he has been refusing help and people should respect that. However, it did shine a light on the lack of supports in helping a player transition into life after hockey. It is hard to say who is responsible for that transition role as traditionally unions support their workers and advocate for them. One solution might be a properly funded alumni organization with professional staff to help players transition into life after hockey as well as to help former players who are in crisis if they want the help.

This is complex, but should probably be a big part of the next negotiations. Furthermore, if anything comes of the class-action lawsuit against the NHL re: concussions and CTE, there should be provisions about helping alumni in the future and before they are in crisis. Long-term care is probably needed in some case and if the damage to the person is because of their profession, it should be their employers responsibility.

This is complicated and there are no easy answers, but there should be a strong understanding of the responsibility of the origins, roles, and responsibilities of unions.