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“It comes down to leadership” – Chatting with WUA President and MLB umpire Joe West


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Photo Credit: Keith Allison

With CBA negotiations potentially hanging by a thread in today’s critical meetings between the NHL and NHLPA, it very easily could be a “do or die” moment for the 2012-2013 NHL season. While this doesn’t seem very fair, it seems to be closer and closer to the truth than ever before. Yet, with the players and owners continuing to battle it out publicly, privately, and visibly across social media (which wasn’t prevalent during the last lockout), you have to wonder what some who have been in this SAME exact situation before feel about the current proceedings.

In 2009, Joe West (a name that most, if not all, baseball fans are very familiar with) became the president of the World Umpires Association and helped guide them to a 5-year labor agreement with Major League Baseball. While we all know that baseball is clearly a different sport than hockey, Union/Management negotaitions are exactly the same everywhere around the world.

The MLBPA and WUA (previously known as the MLUA) had a series of work stoppages (including the 1994-1995 strike) before amicably bartering deals over the past 10 years, including the most recent CBA for the Players in 2011 and the CBA for the Umpires in 2009. West knows what it takes to get a deal done, especially when it comes to dealing with the ones who are signing the paychecks.

“The owners have the purse strings and the owners have the rights to the arenas, so they therefore have total control of everything that goes on,” West told me.

West continued and noted that “the people that get hurt aren’t the ones fighting it out – it’s the little people…. the parking attendant, the usher, the vendor inside or outside the arena, the waiter or waitress in the arena and the people that work in the surrounding businesses that depend on the fans attending the games for their jobs to be sustained.” You can see the impact already in downtown Nashville, but is highlighted better by this article from Josh Cooper from The Tennessean.

As a union leader, West consistently likes to remind his constituents that they have “three responsibilities”:

“Their first responsibility is to the game of Baseball… Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Commissioner’s Office. It means the “GAME” of Baseball. 

Their second responsibility is to their profession… and that doesn’t  necessarily mean the union. It means the profession of umpiring. 

And their third responsibility is to do what in their heart, they know is right.

If you will do that, nothing you do will be wrong. And if both sides do that, the deal will get done.”

With his experiences in the meeting room and in negotiations with the umpires he represents and the owners he bargains with, West knows that the NHL could be in trouble here if the ship isn’t rightened very soon. “They have to think of the ‘Game’ of Hockey first. They have to think of the effect that this negotiation has had on the players and the owners have to think of all the negative effects that this lockout has had on the community,” West said, “And they have to both sit down and decide ‘am I going to let my greed stand in the way of doing what’s right.’ This will have a ripple effect.”

One thing, though, that seems to remain a constant for everyone on the outside looking in at the NHL CBA negotiations is what this is currently doing to the fans:

“Both sides have already lost respect from the fans… and believe me, that’s hard to earn back. Baseball suffered that burden after they canceled the 1994 season,” said West.

After the awful 94′ strike that saw the first place Montreal Expos lose their best season ever (and the start of their downfall) and didn’t really see the fanbase start to re-embrace the sport until the Homerun Record chase between McGwire/Sosa in 1998, it makes you really wonder what a lost season this time around could do for the NHL and their fanbase.

Will the die-hards comeback? I’m not sure they all will, as current die-hards are already turning in their season tickets (including one of the leaders of Section 303 in Nashville, Codey Holland). Will they ever respect this process again? Sure, it’ll take time, but one of these days they’ll get back to where they were, respect-wise, before these negotiations started.

One things for sure, though, if the NHL and NHLPA want to save the season and save the sport of hockey that they love, they need to do so soon if they don’t want to irreparably damage it. West finished with this: “As in all sports, it comes down to leadership. If there are good leaders, then there will be a way out of this.”

The next few days will show how good the leaders are on both sides of the negotiations and if there truly is a way out of this.

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