Physically, Brian Kilrea is well on his way back from his triple bypass surgery last month.
The long-time Ottawa 67′s coach and general manager was out in Kemptville to scout a game last week and he plans on being in attendance for the 67′s season opener against the Barrie Colts Thursday at Scotiabank Place.
“I feel good, every day is better,” Kilrea said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I’ve got to get my half hour walk in every day and everything’s progressing well.”
Mentally, he’s also as sharp as ever, offering up some biting criticism of both NHL players and owners for putting fans through yet another lockout.
“It’s a mess,” he said. “Because of both sides. Both sides have to take a look and ask, ‘where are we going?’”
Kilrea, 77, is no stranger to hockey’s labour wars. In fact, he was a catalyst for the formation of the first players union in professional hockey. In 1966, he led the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League in a strike against what he then described as “constant harassment” by hardline coach Eddie Shore. After Shore suspended three players for what Shore described as “indifferent play”, Kilrea and the rest of the Indians protested by walking out and refusing to play. At the time, Kilrea said the players were simply asking for “halfway decent playing conditions.”
Today’s work stoppage is another matter altogether. Like many hockey fans, Kilrea says there’s plenty of money to go around to make everyone happy. Rather than being caught up in the percentages of revenues shares, which is what the collective bargaining agreement discussions have centred around, he looks at the lockout with a more common sense approach.
As if often the case in a discussion with Kilrea, there is no shortage of words. It’s a matter of where you choose to begin the conversation. Let’s start with the notion that owners and players are “partners” in running the league, a suggestion that Kilrea dismisses.
“I don’t know why the owners have to pay the salary and part of the percentage (of revenues),” he said. “If the owner pays you $7 million, that’s your salary. The owners’ profits shouldn’t have any bearing on it. And how many players are dissatisfied with their salary? That’s the question I would pose.”
Kilrea also believes that the players who choose to skate in Europe during the lockout are undermining the strength of the union, while pushing some existing players off the teams they choose to sign with. “They’re not really going to suffer,” he said. “There’s no hardship if they’re going to get paid.”
They are strong words, but Kilrea also has some harsh comments for the owners who are doling out the huge deals to players, as well.
Like many, he was shocked at the 14-year, $110 million offer sheet Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider gave Nashville Predators defenceman Shea Weber in July. The deal includes $68 million in signing bonuses during the first six years of the contract. Nashville was forced to match the offer, in order to send a message to fans and fellow players that it could be a competitive franchise, able to battle on equal footing with every other team. But survival in a non-traditional hockey market will be difficult because the salary goes against a more small-market business model.
The optics suggest that the Flyers were trying to drive another team out of business, either by taking away their best player or by forcing them to spend money they don’t have to keep the player.
Those kinds of deals, Kilrea says, force the salary escalation that the owners are complaining about.
Collectively, under the last agreement, the owners and players also created a salary cap system where the weakest franchises needed to add salary simply to reach a minimum level.
“I can’t understand the salary cap minimum,” he said. “I feel sorry for (Florida general manager) Dale Tallon. He had to pay some outlandish salaries just to get up to the minimum (last season). What if you wanted to have a real young team, with five or six guys who are 20 or 21 or 22?”
If NHL commissoner Gary Bettman and players’ association executive director Donald Fehr choose to listen, the Hall of Famer Kilrea suggests that the age of unrestricted free agency should be pushed all the way back to 30, in order to protect franchises from losing their stars for nothing when they hit their mid 20′s.
That’s not likely to happen. Fehr is a fan of fluid free agency of players. The way Kilrea sees it, Fehr is not going to give up easily, either. “If he could help cancel the World Series in the U.S., he’s willing to go far, he wants to claim victory,” he said.
Regardless of who gets what in the new deal, Kilrea is hoping for a quick resolution.
If the sides get their act together, they may even have a new CBA in place by the time Kilrea ventures out for his scouting trip to Whitby in late November.