Having been the head of the Professional Hockey Players’ Association since 1993, Larry Landon has been a shining example of a union leader. In the precarious world of Minor League Hockey, Landon has been able to balance the struggle of both meeting the needs of his players, as well as seeing that the teams and markets that they play in are able to prosper financially.
Representing over 1,500 players in the American Hockey League, ECHL and Central Hockey League, the PHPA is the only minor-league players’ union in all of North America. Landon spoke with our own Adrian Szkolar about the state of the PHPA, working with various people in the hockey world, and the organization’s challenges and plans for the future.
* THE HEALTH OF THE PHPA CURRENTLY:
In my eyes, the association is doing very, very well. I believe we've come a long way in a number of years, and that is in great part due to the quality of our Player Reps and Executive Committee. They really stepped up to the plate and assisted us in what we believed in.
* CURRENT CHALLENGES NOW AND IN THE FUTURE:
There are always challenges. I have a saying: "rearview mirrors are for cars," but really, in looking forward, you have to look backwards and see where the challenges came from. What were they? How were they handled? As you see more of those challenges in a repetitive manner, they become easier to handle.
I've been involved since 1981 as a Player Rep, since '93 as the Executive Director, and we've got incredible staff helping the players and their families. The challenges we've faced are the challenges we've experienced. When we have a challenge we haven't faced yet, we have advisors, we call them the A team, readily available if we need them, and we deal with the issues as they arise.
The American Hockey League exercised their right to extend the CBA recently, which would defer collective bargaining negotiations until next year. The ECHL, we've got a multi-year agreement. The Central Hockey League, we look forward to their discussions.
That's probably one of our biggest challenges, the Central Hockey League and the contraction they have experienced. We'll hear their problems and address them if we can. If we can't, then we'll see what the players would like us to do. If you look at the attendance in that league, some of the markets have struggled, and without that it's tough to make the revenues to be sustainable.
One thing that we pride ourselves on as an association is to be able to work with key stakeholders in all the leagues and teams to come up with some answers and help them succeed. If we can't find the answer together, then we've all failed. At the end of the day though, we have an obligation to make sure we represent the players and their families.
* ACCOMPLISHMENTS HE IS MOST PROUD OF:
Sometimes, I sit down and realize that the number of commissioners that I've dealt with, the various leagues that have come and gone, the NHLPA directors that have come and gone, and I think that we are very fortunate that the key stakeholders that we are involved with, whether it be our players, the players' families, our staff, advisors, or some of the league personnel, such as AHL President and CEO Dave Andrews and ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna. I think I've been very fortunate to have been surrounded people who have a passion for hockey.
I think Don Fehr has recognized the importance of the minor leagues, and I am proud of the relationship we are building with the NHLPA. On that note, I'm also happy with the relationship I've built with Bill Daly.
* BIGGEST CRISIS DURING TENURE:
Probably the toughest thing I've seen our membership hit with was in 2004-05 coming out of the last lockout, the thing known as the re-entry system. The waiver system they agreed to restricted minor-league players' salaries, at least those that wanted to advance to the NHL
At the time, if you earned more than 75,000 dollars, you couldn't be recalled unless you were put on waivers, and if you were picked up, the other team would only owe half of that. It was a complicated measure that was cast upon our members, and we weren't at the table for that.
So we got involved, worked with the NHL and the NHLPA and corrected it the best we could at the time. The ultimate correction came when the two sides came together on their latest agreement, because the new number is now the NHL minimum plus 375,000 dollars, so it's not impacting our current members.
* ADVICE FOR BEING HEAD OF A PLAYERS' ASSOCIATION:
Listen to the membership base. Surround yourself with quality people. Try to be a problem-solver, not a problem-maker. I think diplomacy at this level of the sport is an absolute must. Without diplomacy, there are a lot of things that would end up in litigation that would cost both sides dearly. At this level, the economics are so fragile at times that you don't want to tip the scale one way or the other.
One thing we've realized lately through our business development department is to incorporate the wives, get them more involved in the issues. The wives are now the ones who see the effects of concussions going on. For the most part, they are in charge of the family's health insurance; they are oftentimes living in a city where they can't work a lot of times because of visa restrictions. We're trying to get them more involved in the PHPA family.
* IS THE PHPA LOOKING TO EXPAND THE FOOTPRINT TO OTHER LEAGUES?
At this point of time, I don't really see us expanding. I think what we have to do is work as best we can to see that everyone in our sport recognizes that the AHL is the best development league in the world.
Our system works. The triple-A level, the way it is right now, for the development of players, is spectacular. We need to make sure we protect that as best we can and then going forward, make sure we stabilize the double-A markets. Teams and markets have come and gone, but all things being equal, we want to see a development-feeder system that works for player development and meet the needs of the current AHL CBA.
Single-A leagues like the Southern Professional Hockey League aren't on our radar screen at the moment. We do field calls from players, we assist those players with monumental crises if we can, but as far as a collective representation, we don't see that at this point in time. We think we are very effective operating the way we are right now.
* HIS VIEW ON THE LAST NHL WORK STOPPAGE:
Both sides had major points that they had to deal with. I think the deal they came up with in the end works for both sides, and I think that both sides did a great job working together and looking at revenue growth. If both sides are focused on the revenue growth on that level, it's good for the fans, good for the league, and certainly good for the players.
* VIEW ON GARY BETTMAN:
People can say all they want, but if you look at what the NHL has accomplished and the levels the league has reached, you have to give accolades where they are due, and that's to the man making the decisions at the top. I think Gary is very fortunate to have such an astute, talented and hard-working lieutenant in Bill Daly. I think that helps a lot.
I think our sport is privileged to have, and I'm biased to this, but I think we have the greatest athletes in the world. We have great people on both sides of the NHL and the labor, and the fans are absolutely passionate, and if you look north of the border, you could put five or six extra exclamation points on them. When their game is taken away from them, they point the finger at somebody, and unfortunate it’s pointed at Gary.
* THE RECIPE FOR A SUCCESSFUL MINOR-LEAGUE TEAM:
Good market, good lease, good management, and good people skills. Get out there and let the community know that you are out there. You need the people to attend the games and the sponsors to support it.
We've seen some non-traditional hockey markets that have worked in the past, and we've experienced some traditional hockey markets that haven't, and I think it's just being honest with the fan base and the sponsors, and being committed. We can't just have people coming into hockey markets and running away and leave a bad taste in the community's mouth.
* THOUGHTS ON THE CHLPA AND A UNION FOR MAJOR JUNIOR PLAYERS:
Similar to the NCAA and the athletes, I think the CHL certainly has the haves and the have-nots, but when you can get the haves assisting and sharing with the have-nots, then I truly believe that the players deserve a better plight. We had a very unfortunate incident recently with a player in the OHL, and that's when people open up and realize that there are things that should be done.
These are young men, and what they are experiencing at the CHL level is emboldening them for the rest of their lives. It's all great when a player becomes an NHL star, but it's the players that don't make it, the ones that get hurt and are less than able to do jobs down the road, it's the same thing in the NCAA. There is a need for it, but I don't know how they can facilitate it.
I honestly believe that if you are going to own a sports team or run a university athletic program, you have to realize that there are obligations to it. You can't just throw people to the curb, you take care of injured athletes and if he aspires to have an education, you take care of him. If all of those things were done, there wouldn't be all this buzz about a CHL union or an NCAA union.