Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Updated: February 25, 7:53 PM ET
Emergency fund rolling in the dough
By Scott Burnside
One could almost picture longtime NHL executive Brian O'Neill sitting in his Montreal office, a big green garbage bag filled with $8 million next to his desk, stuffing money into envelopes.
This much for you.
This much for you.
This much for you.
It's not exactly how the NHL's players' emergency assistance fund has worked for lo these many years, but it's also not that far from the truth -- which is why the fund is in the midst of a long-awaited makeover that will shift the burden from O'Neill's shoulders to a more balanced NHL/NHLPA administration.
"It's an extremely difficult job for one person," union executive and longtime player Mathieu Schneider told ESPN.com this week.
Schneider is part of a three-person group from the NHLPA -- former player Rob Zamuner and the union's director of finance and hockey-related revenues, Richard Smit, are the other two -- that will help oversee the administration of a fund that has grown to unprecedented levels thanks to the heavy hand of new league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan.
To track the evolution of the players' emergency assistance fund -- which is intended to provided money to former players or their families who are down on their luck -- is in many ways to track the evolution of the league itself.
O'Neill was hired by then-commissioner Clarence Campbell in 1966, and one season later oversaw the expansion draft that heralded the league's first significant expansion, from six to 12 teams.
O'Neill was also in charge of the amateur draft until 1977, when he became the league's disciplinarian, a post he held until 1992. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1994, O'Neill has long been tasked with administering the emergency assistance fund, which has been in existence in some form or another since the mid-1940s.
As far back as 1946, the fines imposed by the league were not tied to salary, meaning players coughed up $50 or $100, depending on their transgressions. Maurice "Rocket" Richard, for instance, was fined $250 during the 1954-55 season for slapping a linesman in the face.
In 1992-93, the fund received a boost when the league decided that the players, who had always been suspended without pay, would instead forfeit that amount of their salary to the emergency fund. The change was made in part to ensure that teams weren't secretly paying the players during their suspensions. (This was also when professional advisers started overseeing the fund.) The formula for determining how much money a player forfeited depended on whether it was a first offense, in which case the percentage was based on the number of days in a season, which is 183. Repeat offenders paid a stiffer penalty, with the percentage of their salary based on the number of games (82), O'Neill said.
|Suspensions, such as the one after this hit from behind by Rene Bourque, then of the Flames, on the Blackhawks' Brent Seabrook, have added money to the players' emergency fund.|
Before the 1990-91 season, salaries were not disclosed by the league or the union, but between 1990-91 and 2010-11, the average salary rose from $271,000 to $2.28 million.
So, with more money in the fund, more players were able to be helped. But never has the fund's profile, not to mention its bank account, been as high as it is now, because of Shanahan imposing a more strict code of conduct and lowering the boom on more players who step outside the rules.
By comparison, in 2005-06, 21 fines and 25 suspensions brought in $460,272.13 from suspended players.
Last season, 28 fines and 42 suspensions generated $1,581,122.10, and this season the number has grown even more. With a third of the season still to play, there have been 25 fines and 35 suspensions, generating $2,072,544.42. More than half that money, $1,305,691, has been generated by nine repeat-offender suspensions.
At the end of 2011, the league and players' association reported the emergency assistance fund was worth about $8 million. The fund is now administered in a more mainstream way, overseen by professional advisers who help it grow through investments.
O'Neill said he distributed last year about $1.5 million and the fund is helping at any one time 80 or so players or their families. The amounts dispersed and the number of individuals helped has remained fairly consistent. O'Neill figures the fund has paid out about $11 million over the past decade.
O'Neill doesn't necessarily root for Shanahan to bring down the hammer. But if players are going to misbehave, "we'll be happy to take their money," O'Neill acknowledged.
Although the amount of money in the fund has risen dramatically, the core beliefs surrounding it have not: that the NHL family looks after its own.
In general, the fund is meant to help players or their families for a few months, with a maximum allocation of $2,500 per month, although that number, as is the time frame depending on the circumstances of the individual case. For example, O'Neill said there are 12 to 14 widows of former players "that were left high and dry" and whom the fund helps on an ongoing basis.
Some who have relied on the fund have played long careers but didn't play when pensions were as lucrative as they are now, when players accrue $42,000 per season played. Some played only a handful of NHL games, bouncing between the minors and the pro level, and struggle to make ends meet when their playing days are over.
Although predominantly a players' fund, O'Neill has helped down-on-their-luck coaches, scouts and on-ice officials over the years, as well.
Most of the players are referred through third parties, most notably the NHL Alumni Association, or through individual players or those in the hockey community.
"It certainly has been a godsend for our members. It's taken a lot of stress off the families involved," alumni association head and former NHLer Mark Napier told ESPN.com. "Brian does such a fabulous job with it."
Napier noted that many players of his generation -- he last played in the NHL in 1988-89, before salaries really took off -- had to take summer jobs to supplement their income.
Napier recalled one older former player who came to the alumni association because he'd lost his job. He had a line on another job but couldn't pay the bills until that opportunity came around. The emergency fund was able to help bridge the gap for a few months until the former player landed the new job.
"He called after and he was just so grateful," Napier said.
Often players, who must fill out a comprehensive form explaining their situation and their immediate financial needs, want to pay the money back, although that's not the fund's function.
"We make it very clear to that this is not a bank. We do not lend money. It's a payment, it's a grant," O'Neill said.
|Brian O'Neill, seen here with Harry Sinden at the 2004 Hockey Hall of Fame inductions, has made the emergency fund a priority.|
Although the stories are unique, certain patterns have emerged through the years: Often the financial hardship suffered by the player involves the breakup of a marriage, alcohol or substance abuse and/or business deals that have gone south.
Invariably the call for help is a kind of last resort.
"It's very difficult. They're all very proud. It's very difficult for them to ask for help," O'Neill said.
"Some of the guys can't work and there's no other source of income.
There's never an end to it."
It's not just older players, either, but recent players who are suffering from personal and financial distress, something that remains more than a little shocking to O'Neill, given the salaries some of the applicants might have earned.
"Very often their money is gone," O'Neill said. "Some of them are just broke."
Reliance on the fund can be effected by downturns in the economy, and so O'Neill has noticed in recent years a slight increase in the number of players looking for help and the nature of their needs -- although, in general, the caseload remains fairly constant from year to year.
Although the fund might be as robust as ever, the very fact that it's necessary illustrates the importance for helping players make the transition between the playing career and retirement. It is this area the fund's new administration hopes to address in the coming months even though it has taken years for the board to be put into place.
This new six-person committee was established under the current collective bargaining agreement in the summer of 2005. But with the instability that has marked the NHLPA in recent years with the ousting of former executive directors Ted Saskin and then Paul Kelly, the introduction of this board system has been delayed.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly and league executives Jim Gregory and Joe DeSousa are the league's representatives, along with O'Neill, who will carry on as president of the fund. And although the day-to-day administration of the fund isn't likely to change, both sides believe there are bigger-picture issues to be addressed.
"Brian's had an awful lot of weight on his shoulders," Schneider said. "I think he's done a tremendous job. He really wants to do right by the guys, but the fund's grown. There's a lot of money in there. I think right now there's more that we can do to help current players and ease the transition into retirement that became a big issue this summer."
The issue came into focus this past summer when former NHLer Wade Belak, who had reportedly struggled with depression, died suddenly in a downtown Toronto condominium. Some alumni suggested the league and the players' association needed to do a better job of preparing players for that transition out of the game.
To that end, Schneider said the new emergency fund administrators are planning to come up with a way to use those resources as a preventative tool so fewer players will get to the point where they need the emergency assistance fund.
In the coming weeks, the six-person committee wants to establish an educational component financed by the emergency fund that current players can tap into while they're still playing to lessen the culture shock after their playing days are over. Whether that educational component involves some sort of mentorship program or access to courses or professional instructors hasn't yet been determined.
"Right now it's in its infancy," Schneider said.
"We certainly have the resources to do it. We really want to be proactive with it."
The program would dovetail with the BreakAway program, which the emergency fund helped establish with the alumni association, offering courses to former players in a variety of topics, including public speaking, broadcasting and finance.
Hall of Fame player Mike Gartner was a member of the NHLPA executive board that was looking at introducing the committee structure before he left the union in the upheaval of a couple of summers ago.
"I know it's contentious," Gartner told ESPN.com.
"Not from the standpoint of what it's used for, because it's used to help players. The question is, who does control it, who makes the decisions over it and how broad is the recipient pool of it? And those are legitimate questions. I never thought we couldn't come to an agreement on it. It just never got done."
Like Schneider, Gartner believes the fund, given its profile and size, could be helping more people.
"It's just like anything when sums of money get so large, there's a lot of attention that comes to it and there's a lot of things that can be done with it," Gartner said.
Gartner wonders if the emergency fund could also be used to help sweeten the pot of the program shared by the NHL and NHLPA that helps top up pensions of players 65 and older. The two sides this year have committed $2 million each to that program.
"If you come up with more money, they can get more money," Gartner said. "So I'm a big fan of getting Ted Lindsay and Paul Henderson and Andy Bathgate more money. I'm a big fan of that. And these are ways you can do it."
|Jim Gregory (left) and Brendan Shanahan each have a hand in the emergency fund, but in different ways.|
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.