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Marty Walsh sums up his first week as executive director of the NHL Players’ Association and his plans for the job

The Boston Globe 4/1/2023 Kevin Paul Dupont
Marty Walsh left his post as Secretary of Labor to become executive director of the NHL Players’ Association. © Rebecca Droke Marty Walsh left his post as Secretary of Labor to become executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.

In the Toronto office where he officially began calling the shots this past week, he’s no longer Mr. Mayor or Mr. Secretary.

“Yeah, just Marty,” said Marty Walsh, reflecting on his first week as the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association. “Anyone at the PA office isn’t concerned about mayor or secretary, so walking around, I heard a lot of ‘Martys’, which is fine, it’s who I am.”

Dorchester born and raised, Walsh, about to turn 56, at the start of this year turned in his papers as the US Secretary of Labor for the opportunity to run the PA, comprised of some 800 union stick carriers with a payroll north of $2 billion.

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Walsh has the good fortune of taking over at a time of labor peace, the collective bargaining agreement between players and the league not pegged to expire until Sept. 15, 2026.

That grace period, or what Walsh terms “a learning period,” will allow him time, he noted during a phone conversation on Friday, to get to know players across the 32-team league on a meaningful, personal level and fully absorb the minutiae of the CBA before beginning talks on a new deal, ideally in the fall of 2025.

It’s that commitment to build a close connection with the players that went a long way in Walsh landing the gig. A protracted subnarrative among the players for much of Donald Fehr’s 12-year tour in office — and during prior PA administrations — was that they felt a need for closer, more direct relationship with the boss.

Walsh assured the search committee it was his intention to build that bond, a trademark of his career dating to his years in public office. He’ll be on a flight Monday morning to Los Angeles to start meeting directly with players in a number of NHL cities, building a constituency, making sure rank-and-file members have his office and cellphone numbers.

“By this time next year, I’ll be able to rattle off to you a super-majority of the players in the NHL,” he promised. “You know, not that I just represent NHL hockey players. I think a good leader of a union knows the membership not just by what they want in a contract, or [when it’s time for] collective bargaining, but who knows who they are as people, and have that relationship.

“If you understand the players, and they have confidence, first of all to know you know who they are by name, then when you are leading them, whatever the conversations might be, they’ll trust my judgment.”

Growth of the game, in terms of fan interest, popularity, and hockey-related revenue, also tops Walsh’s to-do list — and one more daunting than putting names to those faces and game sweaters.

Walsh said he envisions some of the game’s growth coming from the grass-roots level, harkening back to his childhood in Dorchester, when the Police Athletic League sponsored street hockey at Wainwright Park. Some, he said, has to come from increased exposure and marketing of the players, including top names as well as roster regulars.

Overall, as he witnessed in his two terms as Boston’s mayor, he believes the NHL and the PA can build a bigger economic engine.

“At the end of the day, does it come down to HRR?” Walsh said, referring to hockey-related revenue, which owners share equally, which in turn determines the league’s annual salary cap. “Yeah, you want to grow the game and revenue, obviously. But it’s also an opportunity to lay down a foundation for what the sport can look like in the next 5-10 years.”

In his time as mayor, noted Walsh, City Hall generated some $48 billion in economic development.

“When I became mayor, I didn’t just approve that overnight,” he added. “It was a process. I followed my predecessor [Tom Menino] and continued on, doing economic development and attracting people to the city. It might look a little different [in hockey], but the premise is the same.”

Within a matter of weeks, ex-Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker was named president of the NCAA and Walsh the boss of the NHLPA. Neither of them, noted Walsh, envisioned these would be the next stops on their career paths.

“Governor Baker reached out to me the night before he got announced at the NCAA,” recalled Walsh. “And I said, ‘How’d it happen?’ He told me he was contacted by a search firm. And he said to me, ‘If you put 50 potential opportunities on a list, this wouldn’t have been one of them.’ I knew exactly what he meant. If you told me to write down 100 potential opportunities that you’d consider after public life, what would it be? The NHLPA probably isn’t one. I’d be like, I don’t even know how to think about that.”


Nugent-Hopkins playing his part

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, has spent a mostly-under-the-radar dozen seasons in Edmonton, overshadowed early on by Taylor Hall (No. 1, 2010) and in more recent years by generational behemoth Connor McDavid (No. 1, 2015).

Now with nearly 800 regular-season games on his résumé, the smooth-skating Nugent-Hopkins this season finally has delivered the pop that scouts projected when he was promoted directly from WHL Red Deer as a flyweight 170-pounder at age 18. He piled up a five spot (1-4–5) in the Oilers’ 7-4 win Tuesday night in Las Vegas, bringing his season total to a career-best 96 points.

Barring a total power outage over the last two weeks, Nugent-Hopkins will join McDavid (144) and Leon Draisaitl (117) as the third Oiler to reach the 100-point plateau this season. It will be the first time that three teammates have hit for a C-note since the 1995-96 Penguins with Mario Lemieux (161), Jaromir Jagr (149), and Ron Francis (119).

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The prolific 1970-71 Bruins — we seem to be talking a lot about those guys this season — were the first to have three players crash the 100-point barrier, and they finished with a record four, a mark equaled only four times. The 1970-71 Bruins were led by Phil Esposito (152), Bobby Orr (139), John Bucyk (116), and Ken Hodge (105).

The Oilers, bolstered by the deadline acquisition of Mattias Ekholm for their blue line, were a sizzling 12-2-1 in March. They were teasing with playoff DNQ territory midway through the season and now look like they could have another healthy postseason run. They reached the Western Conference finals last spring before getting rolled, 4-0, by the Stanley Cup-winning Avalanche.

Smart and smooth with the puck, the versatile Nugent-Hopkins now plays at a sturdier 185 pounds, typically pivots the second line, and plays first-unit power play and penalty kill. Average time on ice: 19:52. Perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to keep pace with the blazing McDavid, a job far harder than it sounds. Keeping pace is one thing, but trading passes and finishing plays at warp factor five is an entirely different level of difficulty.

Nugent-Hopkins lives in Vancouver in the offseason and owns thoroughbred horses, including his favorite — Infinite Patience, something horse and human have in common.


Goalies often take time to develop

The Sabres, still with the slightest flicker of hope of picking off a wild-card spot, received an emotional boost Friday night when ex-Northeastern goalie Devon Levi made his NHL debut at home vs. the Rangers. Levi turned back 31 shots, pacing a 3-2 overtime win that brought the Sabres within 5 points of the Penguins for the No. 8 seed in the East.

Levi departed Huntington Avenue a couple of weeks ago after going 38-22-6 in his two years starting for the Hounds. He is quick and agile, signs that he could be ready for full-time NHL work without prepping for a year or more in the minors.

Such leaps are rare, particularly in net.

Two springs ago, Spencer Knight went right into battle from the Boston College campus following his sophomore season and within days posted four wins in four starts with the Panthers. He followed with a promising rookie season (19-9-3) but hasn’t played with the varsity in 2022-23 since entering the NHL-NHLPA player assistance program for care in late February.

Another ex-Eagle goaltender, Thatcher Demko, logged three seasons at The Heights before turning pro with Vancouver. He then played two seasons in the AHL before eventually winning the Canucks’ No. 1 job. He missed some three months with a groin injury this season but has gone 8-3-1 since returning.

Jake Oettinger packed up at Boston University in 2019 after his junior season and prepped for a year in the AHL before making his NHL debut in the 2020 playoff bubble. The 24-year-old is now the clear-cut No. 1 in Dallas and has posted at least 30 wins in each of the last two seasons.

At only 6 feet, Levi is considered slightly undersized in today’s NHL. Oettinger (6-5), Demko (6-4), and Knight (6-3) are all taller, which is to say they are standard cut for the position. Levi will be tested up high, shooters hoping to make some hay with that extra 3-5 inches exposed around the crossbar when he drops for stops.

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A look at the top 10 goalies (based on wins) this season finds the average height to be just a tick below 6-3. The only one shorter than 6-1 is Nashville’s Juuse Saros (5-11), who lacked nothing in stature at the Garden Tuesday night when he turned back 35 shots for a 2-1 over the Bruins.

Just a few of the game’s great goalies who fared pretty well despite being, shall we say, vertically challenged: Glenn Hall (5-11), Jacques Plante (6 feet), Gump Worsley (5-7), Gerry Cheevers (5-11), Tony Esposito (5-11), Eddie Belfour (5-11), Billy Smith (5-10), Grant Fuhr (5-11), and Bernie Parent (5-10).

Montreal’s Jose Theodore (5-11) won the Vezina Trophy in 2001-02, and Tim Thomas (5-11), in 2008-09 and 2010-11, has been the lone goalie shorter than 6-1 to win it since.

Hurricanes can stop with nostalgia tour

The Whalers hurriedly piled sticks, skates, and pucks into a moving van in the spring of 1997 and set up shop in North Carolina, where they continue to do business as the Hurricanes, with no intention of ever returning to the greater Hartford area other than during flyovers to Causeway Street.

So, count your faithful puck chronicler among those who have grown tired of seeing the Hurricanes continue their dalliances in green, suiting up from time to time in Whaler-inspired uniforms 600 miles south in Raleigh in the spirit of, what, tradition? C’mon.

When the time came to grab a buck, the Whalers cut and ran faster than a Risto Siltanen slapper, before they even had a bona fide arena to stage NHL games. Now, more than a quarter-century later, they’re still paying some phony homage to NHL roots dating to 1979. The Forever .500s now have been gone longer than their NHL roots were planted in that Nutmeg soil.

The Whalers had their day, and with a break or two on the game sheet, who knows, maybe those days could have been better, longer, richer. But they’re gone, done, and watching the Hurricanes continue to reach for a cheap textile play and sell more green Whalers merchandise in the pro shop feels tawdry and even a bit mean-spirited.

Loose pucks

Center prospect Trevor Kuntar eschewed his senior year at BC and signed on Wednesday with the Bruins, agreeing to a two-year deal that starts next season. The 89th pick in the 2020 draft, Kuntar is from Rob Gronkowski’s hometown (Williamsville, N.Y.) and played three seasons at USHL Youngstown prior to joining the Eagles, for whom he was the club’s third-leading scorer (29 points) this season. Working in Kuntar’s favor at the bargaining table: He could have played out his senior season and declared free agency the following summer, allowing him to field bids from all 32 NHL teams. The four-year college “out” remains one of the few pressure points prospects have, until they reach restricted free agency with arbitration rights, maybe with their third NHL contract … The same day Kuntar signed with the Bruins, college free agent Jason Polin (Western Michigan University) struck a one-year deal with the Avalanche. The Wild and Bruins were rumored to be feisty tire kickers for Polin, whose deal in Denver carries an $870,000 cap hit. He and the Avalanche will extend the deal over the summer … Already a force in the East, the Devils are expected to get a backline boost when/if top draft pick Luke Hughes signs and plugs into the group upon the completion of his Frozen Four run with Michigan on Thursday or Saturday. A left-shot defenseman, the dynamic Hughes has piled up 47 points in 38 games in his sophomore season. He was the No. 4 pick in the 2021 draft as a bigger/sturdier version (6-2, 185 pounds) of brother Quinn Hughes, the slick backliner in Vancouver. Another brother, center Jack Hughes, has been the Devils’ top scorer most of the season … As expected, Sean Farrell (Hopkinton/St. Mark’s) left Harvard after his sophomore year and made his debut with the Canadiens Tuesday night in Philadelphia. What wasn’t expected, at least from behind the Habs’ bench, was that the 5-9 left winger would plug into his first game without so much as a single practice with the varsity. As noted by Arpon Basu, who covers the Canadiens for The Athletic, not the kind of culture coach Martin St. Louis has been trying to build for the recovering bleu, blanc, et rouge. “That’s a question for Kent,” said St. Louis, when asked about Farrell’s bullet-train ascension. Kent Hughes, former agent for Patrice Bergeron, is the Canadiens’ general manager. Two nights later, Farrell popped for 1-1–2 in a 5-2 loss to the Panthers … Aidan McDonough, ex- of Milton, Thayer Academy, and Northeastern, signed a two-year deal and made his debut with the Canucks. The 6-2 left winger played all four seasons at NU and could have shopped the market this summer, but he opted to stick with the franchise that made him the 195th pick in the 2019 draft … Czech right winger Lukas Rousek, recently summoned from AHL Rochester, looks like he could be a solid add down the line for the Sabres. He rolled up 49 points in 62 games with the Amerks and popped for 1-1–2 in his NHL debut. Rousek played two more seasons in Prague (Sparta) after his draft year (No. 160, 2019) before coming to North America last season. His AHL start suffered a long delay last season because of ACL reconstruction. He was sent back to Rochester after his Buffalo debut but would be a likely recalls if the Sabres can filch that last wild-card seed … The Predators unveiled a statue of goalie icon Pekka Rinne last Saturday outside Bridgestone Arena. The classy Finn, who played his final game May 10, 2021, and logged his 369th win, was humble and humorous when noting during the unveiling that the honor could mean he’ll never have to ask for tickets to home games. “I just have to point,” he said, gesturing toward his bronzed likeness, “ ‘Hey, that’s me.’ ”

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