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Los Angeles Kings enforcer Kevin Westgarth, centre, was planning to be an orthopedic surgeon before the bright lights of the AHL came calling. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Los Angeles Kings enforcer Kevin Westgarth, centre, was planning to be an orthopedic surgeon before the bright lights of the AHL came calling. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

James Mirtle

Picture Gary Bettman on the couch of a fighter/shrink … Add to ...

Of all the players who have sat in meeting after meeting the past four months, his name is the most likely to draw a puzzled response.

“Who?!”

But before you judge Kevin Westgarth’s suitability to take part in the NHL’s endless negotiating sessions, have a closer look at his résumé.

Yes, he is the Los Angeles Kings’ enforcer, a 28-year-old fourth-liner who averages about five minutes ice time a game and has played in just 90 regular-season games.

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Westgarth, however, is also plenty of other things, including a Princeton graduate who has a degree in psychology and was planning to be an orthopedic surgeon before the bright lights of the AHL came calling in his fourth year.

The son of two veterinarians in Amherstburg, Ont., Westgarth is the kind of unique soul who asks to watch as a doctor pieces the fighter’s mangled hand back together.

“That was pretty cool,” Westgarth said. “He took down the sheet and let me watch as he opened up my finger. He was showing me inside and the goings-on of the human body. I probably annoy the hell out of them.”

At 6 foot 4 and 230 pounds, Westgarth has stood out in his many photo ops alongside Donald Fehr, executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.

But far from bringing only muscle, it’s been his willingness to sit through and analyze dozens of mind-numbing meetings that has separated him from other players, making him one of a half dozen – including Ron Hainsey, Chris Campoli, Mathieu Darche and Craig Adams – unheralded players playing a key role for the union during the lockout.

It’s a process Westgarth considers more gruesome than watching his own surgery, one full of tedium and disappointment in trying to deal with an adversary – commissioner Gary Bettman and four or five heavily involved owners – he believes isn’t willing to compromise.

“It doesn’t feel like anything’s getting done, really,” Westgarth said of his feeling walking out of the negotiating room the past few weeks. “No matter what, it just seems like they don’t listen and then reject [our proposals]… I definitely appreciate the fans’ frustration and I understand where the anger comes from because I feel it myself.

“It’s a really sad and quite stupid place to be right now, not playing hockey.”

Westgarth has spent much of the lockout at his off-season home in Raleigh, N.C., where he skates with several Carolina Hurricanes and lives with wife Meagan, the daughter of former NFL coach Bill Cowher.

Whenever a meeting is called, he hops the short flight to either New York or Toronto and prepares for another round of what he calls the most frustrating experience of his life.

Westgarth’s first-hand tales from the negotiating room are enlightening. He noted that things got a little heated when Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, who had been arguing against big, front-loaded contracts, signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to nearly $100-million (U.S.) deals in July and then returned to the negotiations as if nothing had happened.

Pressed for an explanation, Leipold apparently told players “he had to take a big gamble to try to make money.”

“I understand that essentially some of what they’re trying to do is protect themselves from themselves,” Westgarth said. “It’s a very, very strange thing to negotiate with.”

Despite sitting opposite some of the most powerful men in his sport, however, he doesn’t believe any of the bad blood in these talks will carry over and affect his career.

Westgarth said he has separated the business of negotiations from the personal and, after getting to know deputy commissioner Bill Daly away from negotiations, considers him “a lovely man.”

“We’ve had very convivial and enjoyable conversations,” he said. “Unfortunately, when lockout topics came up, not much progress got made.”

As a fringe player, Westgarth added that he realizes some of what players are fighting for will never affect him directly, but he also argued that the trickle-down effect of eliminating creative contracts for stars would mean less cap space for the remaining players.

He also believes those contract rights are worth fighting for after other players lost a season in 2004-05 to get them.

“I will stand up for what I think is right for all the guys on my team,” he said. “The reason those contracts exist is because, in a cap system, that’s how you make room for paying other players. If we gave up the rights that the league wants, I believe it would annihilate the middle class of the NHL.”

As for using his Princeton pedigree during negotiations, Westgarth joked he wouldn’t mind a psychologist’s session with the NHL commissioner when this is all over.

“I would love to get Gary to sit down on the couch with me,” he said. “I could psychoanalyze him and maybe figure some of this stuff out. But I don’t know if he’d be up for that.”

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