It marks an incredible change of culture.
Well, perhaps NHL owners have reformed their ways for good.
The Star has learned that last week, after ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement with the players on the heels of a painful 113-day lockout, NHL owners also unilaterally decided to improve a special benefit program for former players 65 and over by 50 per cent.
The NHL will increase to $ 3 million its annual contribution to the Senior Player Benefit, up from $ 2 million. The plan benefits more than 300 former players, some of the greatest to ever play the game, and their widows.
“Our board enthusiastically agreed that it was the right thing to do,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “These are the people who helped make the game as big as it is today. We are all in their debt.”
Now we’ll see if the players union — the body that declined to fight the pension battle against the owners two decades ago and left Brewer et al to do it on their own — decides to match the newest NHL contribution.
As of Monday, the NHL Players’ Association, which improved pension benefits for current players in the new CBA, had not committed to increasing its contribution to the Senior Player Benefit to $ 3 million annually.
The Senior Player Benefit, which started in 2005, has been in the headlines in recent months after the Star reported in November that neither the league nor the players had committed to continuing the fund after the old CBA expired Sept. 15.
The Senior Player Benefit is separate from pensions and, until now, gave $ 1,380 annually for each year of service. For former NHL players getting by on pensions often worth less than $ 600 a month, it made an enormous difference.
After the Star reported on the uncertainty facing retired NHLers who didn’t know if they would be getting Senior Player Benefit cheques in 2013 as scheduled, in December both the league and NHLPA relented and promised to continue funding the program.
Now, with the lockout over, NHL owners have gone a step further and increased their contribution, which would be worth $ 30 million over the next decade.
Given that more and more players will be drawing from the fund in future years because of the massive expansion of the NHL from six teams after 1967, these funds will be needed, says Mark Napier, president of the NHL Alumni Association.
“I think it’s just fabulous,” said Napier. “They don’t have to do it, but they know it’s the right thing to do.”
If the NHLPA decides to match the new NHL contribution, players will be able to draw about $ 1,800 for each year of service. Compared to last year, that could mean about $ 4,000 more a year for a player with 10 years’ playing service.
What remains unclear is why it’s the league taking the lead on this initiative and not NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. Five years ago, former union boss Paul Kelly upped the union’s share and invited the league to do the same.
Now, it’s the other way around, with the league inviting the union to increase its contribution.
NHL owners used to loot the players’ pensions. Last week, they voluntarily sought to improve the financial lot of those who came before.