The stability and financial future of the Phoenix Coyotes was one of several topics discussed by members of the National Hockey League Players' Association at its annual summer meetings for North American players, held here Friday, and according to Glenn Healy, the NHLPA's director of player affairs, there is frustration that they have no say in the matter.
"You need to have leverage and rights before you can take a position," Healy said. "We have no ability to dictate anything.
"We were told in September that the team was okay. We were told in February that the team was okay. In fact, at that point, [the NHL]had already infused tens of millions of dollars into the team. Any media outlet that wrote that the team was in trouble was ridiculed.
"So from that standpoint, we basically had the burlap bag over our heads with regards to the Phoenix situation, which is disappointing because we consider ourselves major stakeholders in the game, and it affects not only our 23 players there, but a whole bunch of players who used to play there as well."
Healy said the Coyotes' struggles and the possibility of their relocation to southern Ontario were discussed under the broader umbrella of "marketplace issues," which also included discussions on the future of the salary cap.
Under the current collective agreement, the players receive about 56 per cent of gross revenues, so a money-losing operation such as the Coyotes negatively affects the overall revenue pie.
In theory, the players and owners are supposed to be operating as a partnership, which, according to Healy, is not the case.
"My approach was, we've got some of the best stuff going on, on the ice, in a long time," Healy said. "The problem is, we've taken the game from the sports page to the business page, and the quicker we can get it off the business page, the better it is."
Michael Cammalleri, a native of Richmond Hill, Ont., said he couldn't speak for all the players, but he believes the Coyotes belong in southern Ontario.
"I think it's too bad things haven't worked out there," Cammalleri said. "Putting a second team in southern Ontario is something that should be a priority for our league. I think it's a market that could grow serious revenue for everyone, and I'd love to see that happen."
When Anaheim Ducks defenceman Chris Pronger was asked about the Coyotes' future, he said: "You're not going to have 30 perfect teams. That's a given, I don't care what sport you're in. Every sports league has its black sheep. It's how you work through those issues and how you work with those teams - to make them perform better from a financial standpoint - or they move.
"This is not going to be an issue that goes away fast. It's going to take some time and it's going to be a long, drawn-out process.
"We wouldn't be having this discussion if the economy were as good as it was two years ago. It's a global issue that impacts everybody, in their everyday lives, and it does pro sports as well."
Among the on-ice issues tackled by the players in smaller group discussions: fighting, restrictions on goaltender equipment, and the NHL's new interest in toughening up drug-testing standards, raised by commissioner Gary Bettman during the Stanley Cup final.
"I don't feel like we have a big problem," Pronger said of the possibility of extending drug testing to the off-season, "and I don't think it's that big an issue in our sport."
Georges Laraque, one of a handful of enforcers who attended the meeting, made an impassioned plea in defence of fighting, and said "everybody pretty much agreed" with his recommendations, which will be forwarded to the competition committee for review next week.
"The big problem is, the league wants to have 10-minute misconducts for staged fights," Laraque said, "but those rules that they're proposing do not fix the real problem. The real problem is guys falling down and knocking their heads on the ice when their helmets come off.
"Guys are still going to fight. The penalties aren't going to make it safer. I talked about ways of making it safer."
Laraque suggested that equipment manufacturers develop a clip-on visor that a player can easily discard if he engages in a fight. That way he can keep his helmet on in case he gets thrown to the ice. Laraque also proposed a ban of the mixed-martial arts training that some younger fighters in the junior ranks are using, techniques he says do not belong in the NHL.
"That's an elbowing major and intent to injure," Laraque said. "We're totally against that. Those are the types of things that we can talk to the league about."