Although NHL fans are angry at the players and owners for the current lockout, the players at least deserve credit for their solidarity and respect for the past. But if that respect for those who came before them is so strong, then why are some retired players -- along with the fans -- about to become collateral damage of the lockout?
As reported recently by Damian Cox of the Toronto Star and Marc de Foy of the Journal de Montreal, more than 300 former NHLers over the age of 65 are on the verge of losing between $1,000 and $12,000 per year, money they received for the last seven NHL seasons via the supplemental Senior Benefit Plan.
In 2004, a combined initiative -- spearheaded by Hall of Fame hockey writer Russ Conway, NHL alumni executive director Mark Napier and former players Pat Flatley, Ted Lindsay, Brian Conacher and Glenn Healy -- helped create a fund to compensate NHL alumni members 65 years and older. The league and the NHLPA each contributed $1 million, meaning over the course of the next four years, these former players would receive $1,380 annually for every season they played. In late 2007, then-NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly convinced both the NHLPA and NHL to double their contributions starting in 2008.
As a result, Bruins greats Milt Schmidt and Gerry Cheevers and more than 300 other former NHLers received annual payments that helped them and their families survive. These players never made the millions players make today, and the Senior Benefit Plan has been a way to meet the cost of living and growing old. But now these former players are scrambling for ways to replace this annual money; their last payment will come in January since the CBA expired Sept. 15.
"I really have no idea how I will pay those bills now," former Bruin Dallas Smith told ESPNBoston.com.
Both the NHL and NHLPA have acknowledged that the topic of renewing the Senior Benefits Plan has not come up in CBA talks, but to this point only the NHL has expressed direct intent to renew the plan. Napier said both sides were given new proposals from the NHL Alumni Association.
"The NHLPA was instrumental in starting this, but we haven't received a definite answer from them yet," Napier said. "But obviously they're very busy now with negotiations, so we understand that. We just hope to hear from them soon."
Email requests to the NHL for comments were not returned, but NHLPA director of communications Jonathan Weatherdon told ESPNBoston.com, "No one on either side has suggested changing this important provision." However, he did not say whether the NHLPA would commit to renewing the plan.
Still, as of today, Hall of Famers like Schmidt, who is 94 and living in a senior home just outside of Boston, will be forced to find other ways to pay bills that had been covered by the annual $12,000 Senior Benefit Plan allotment.
"First of all, let me say this, I am very grateful and pleased to the National Hockey League and the players' association to let me earn a living by playing in that league," Schmidt told ESPNBoston.com via phone. "Secondly, I am grateful that they have been respecting what we did for the game by giving us these payments over the last few years."
Schmidt said he was grateful to the NHL and NHLPA for contributing to the fund, but the always-humble Schmidt politely let it be known how much he and his fellow NHLers depend on this money.
"If it's not renewed, it's going to be rather painful, to put it lightly," Schmidt told ESPNBoston.com via phone. "There are numerous former players that depend on this -- myself included -- for health insurance, rent, bills and other things, and to have it just stop will really hit hard in most cases. I get along OK, but without that money, I will miss it because you don't live on peanuts nowadays. I know one former player who was using it for his health insurance before he recently passed away, and now his wife uses it to pay for her treatment for dementia."
It should be noted that there is an emergency fund that will help some, but not all, of the plan's beneficiaries.
Understandably, not all players who benefit from this plan were as reserved in their comments. Cheevers -- who will be 72 on Dec. 7 -- made it clear he has no gripe with the players and doesn't blame them for the lockout. But he is calling on them to do what they believe is the right thing and renew the Senior Benefits Plan as soon as possible. Cheevers also believes the problem might be due to NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr's failure to communicate with the players and take action on the issue.
"The players have to fight for what they believe in and I understand all that, so I know they have a lot on their plate and I don't blame them at all for this lockout," the Hall of Fame goalie told ESPNBoston.com. "I think, and this is just my opinion, it is a problem that lies with the current head of the players' association, so maybe the players need to speak up."
To this point in the CBA negotiations, the NHL and NHLPA have seemingly disagreed on everything, but now is the time for both sides to agree on something that really seems like a no-brainer.
As Hall of Famer Brad Park -- who is slated to start receiving the payments after he turns 65 in July -- pointed out, both sides have enough bad press surrounding them right now, and the failure to do what's right in this situation could push fans away even further.
"I was very surprised it was an issue because it is a public relations nightmare in the sense that they're stepping on the toes of some of the guys who helped build the game and create the benefits that current players now enjoy," Park told ESPNBoston.com. "Apparently, we're on the backburner and I'm not sure why. It brings a lot of question marks now to the daily lives of us older guys who depended on it."
Park is absolutely correct. Players must now practice what they preach and respect the past, and the NHL should join them. As Conway suggested to ESPNBoston.com recently: "Maybe, just maybe, they may find common ground to build off and bring the good will to the bargaining table."