Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHLers raised to fight back

It's about more than money to hardscrabble hockey players Owners' aggression prompts conditioned response

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Dean KENNEDY didn't give the expected answer. Turns out, despite considerable differences between him and today's NHL player, Kennedy is still one of them. Union card or not.


Kennedy is in Winnipeg to take part in the Mike Keane Celebrity Classic today and was at the MTS Iceplex on Wednesday night for a meet and greet.

If you remember him from his playing days, it wouldn't be hard to recognize him today. Same haircut, same Wranglers, same Western shirt and same mannerisms.

Friendly and kind, but no-nonsense and tougher than a $2 steak.

Kennedy played in a different NHL, coming up through the Western Hockey League, where fighting was a rite of passage. He was a leader and, as his old teammate Kris King describes him, "would back you up on the ice no matter who came knocking. There was no better guy to have on a team."

I can't imagine Kennedy in today's NHL locker-room. He wouldn't stand for some of the stuff that now passes for professionalism.

With that backdrop, I expected Kennedy to suggest the players had overplayed their hand and should have taken the owners' offer by now. I couldn't have been more wrong. Kennedy's views on the subject go a long way to illustrate why these negotiations are about more than just money and greed.

In many ways the spot hockey is in right now is about the soul of a hockey player and the things we like best about our hockey heroes.

"As a hockey player, you're raised to never back down. You're raised to play for the team. It's beat into you all the time. By your coaches, by your fellow players, by fans and by ownership," said Kennedy, who was born in Redvers, Sask., and played junior hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings. "That was the interesting thing about the lockout I was involved with in 1994.

'It's beat into you to think the way I just described and then all of a sudden you're not supposed to be like that. You're supposed to take what they give you. You're not supposed to think and you're not supposed to look at it as a business. They want you to act the opposite of what has been beat into for your whole life as a hockey player."

Money, on the surface, is what the NHL's labour stoppage is all about. But now, with players watching cash disappear that will never come back, there has to be more to this.

Many of us observing the NHL's current labour negotiations have mortgages and financial commitments that make it hard for us to empathize with the hockey players we admire and even idolize.

They're millionaires. Shouldn't they be happy with that? Yes, of course, is the answer. We should all be so lucky.

But it's not so clear cut. One doesn't get to be a player in the NHL by being happy with what one is handed. Hockey players have to take what they want. It's the essence of the game. Want the puck? Take it by whatever means necessary.

So when an owner wants to take something from a player, right or wrong, it's not going to be easy. Throw in the distrust generated from years of owners taking advantage of players and the sins of Alan Eagleson and the players' point of view is a little easier to understand.

"As an ex-player, I think the owners are being what I call 51 per centers. Regardless of what they get, it won't be good enough," said Kennedy. "And next time around, they'll want more. They'll always want more. I'm saying that on a league-wide basis. We're here in Winnipeg and I think the world of the Jets ownership. But on a league-wide basis, certainly on that East Coast, where they are making big money, they won't be satisfied until they get everything."

Hockey gave Kennedy a head start in life but it didn't offer him the generational money players are collecting today. So don't confuse his attitude with that of an entitled pro athlete.

"Every dollar I ever made as a hockey player was found money," said Kennedy. "The most money I ever made was $450,000. It was a dream come true to play the game. I didn't realize the power of the game and the depth of the game until I retired. I look back at the game and I have to pinch myself still. Here I am 50 years old and what I did brings me back to Winnipeg for something like this. It took me to Afghanistan to see the troops. It's done so much for me. It set me up on a ranch where I could raise my kids in Pincher Creek (Alta.) where we wanted to be."

Kennedy says fans shouldn't be so quick to judge today's players.

"Hockey fans are tremendous fans. No better fans in the world. But those same hockey fans will bitch and moan about their boss and complain about how much money the company is making and taking advantage of them," said Kennedy. "Then those same people will point the finger at the players as the culprit in this case. That's very contrary to how people will walk in their everyday life."

This fight has long ago left the realm of reason. It should have been solved this summer with both sides giving a little bit.

But ownership threw a punch. They picked a fight when they should have asked for a sit down. And now, for right or wrong, the players are swinging back.

What did the owners expect? As Kennedy points out, it's what they pay them to do.


gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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