Pull Together

Roman Hamrlik (#44) receiving the last hug he will ever get from Troy Brouwer (#20).

“I am disgusted. We have to push Fehr to the wall to get the deal. Time is against us. We lost 1/4 season, it is $425 million. Who will give it back to us? Mr. Fehr?

“There should be voting between players. Four questions – YES or NO – then count it. If half of players say let’s play, then they should sign new CBA. If there is no season he should leave and we will find someone new. Time is our enemy.”

- Roman Hamrlik, as reported on Puck Daddy.

Let’s start with an obvious point: Hamrlik isn’t wrong. Regardless of how you feel about his decision to say it- which we’ll be talking about for a thousand words after this paragraph- his position is completely valid. The players are losing money by holding out; many of them are losing the last season of their career. As many observers have noted, time is their enemy. Hamrlik, who is 38 years old and has already lost over a hundred career games to labor unrest, is a natural spokesman for that contingent of players who is losing far more in this battle than they can hope to win. He’s honestly speaking his interests, and it’s extremely likely that a substantial faction of the PA feels the same way, because Lord knows they have the same interests and not everyone is so altruistic as to sacrifice a year of professional hockey opportunity over HRR percentage points. As far as raw information goes, these comments are nothing more than the confirmation of shit we already knew.

And yet, although uncounted dozens of guys probably nodded along while reading Hamrlik’s rant, so far all of them save teammate Michal Neuvirth have swallowed their discontent and kept their mouths shut. Why? Fragmenting the PA would be the easiest way to get what they want: a deal signed and the game back on the ice. If fifty guys came out together and said, we are prepared to take whatever is on the table right now, they’d be instant heroes in the eyes of many fans and certainly in the eyes of their owners, and they’d undermine the solidarity that allows Fehr to conjure leverage out of air. If getting back on the ice is your highest priority, then it’d be supremely logical to do as Hamrlik did and let your grievances fly.

But (almost) no one does.

If you want to understand why, consider the intensity of anger Hamrlik’s views drew from other players. Sure, the look of a unified front is an important part of the PA strategy, but a frustration with someone mucking up your tactics doesn’t quite seem to explain the vitriol with which Erik Cole and Troy Brouwer responded to this breaking of ranks. Brouwer accused him of selling out and Cole of refusing to sacrifice for the greater good. Both players called Hamrlik “selfish”, both expressed the hope that he wouldn’t come back to the NHL, and- most importantly- both said they would find it difficult to play on a team with him again.

This seems a little bit over-the-top, no? Especially for hockey players, teammates and ex-teammates, whose most intense criticism of each other usually ends at “you hate to see that, but it is what it is.” I mean, dude is only saying what a lot of guys have to be thinking; at worst, he’s calling for a vote and willing to abide by the result. Certainly both Brouwer and Cole have shared the ice quietly with guys who’ve done worse in their lives than express an unpopular labor opinion.

As Bourne and others have pointed out, the team-first mentality that hockey players share contributes to the union’s strength, and I think it also explains why Cole and Brouwer are so deeply and personally offended by Hamrlik’s remarks- and specifically, why neither feels as though they could be comfortable playing with him in the future.

The dynamics within a hockey team are not so different than the dynamics within the PA: everyone’s self-interest pull in different ways. On the PA you have some guys- stars, established young players, third liners- who really need a good CBA to protect their future earnings, while you have others- veterans on their last legs, borderline AHLers in the process of proving their place- who need to play now far more than they need an extra 4% in 2016. They have to share a union while having diametrically opposed interests.

Similarly, within a team, player’s needs and desires pull against each other. The star who is in the process of negotiating a huge contract is, implicitly, negotiating to take money away from some of his teammates. That rookie who’s trying to pull himself up the depth chart is, implicitly, trying to steal ice time from his elders. The 5th defenseman who’s playing well is guaranteeing the 7th defenseman spends weeks in the press box. In fact, if we were to think like Ayn Rand and assume that the naked pursuit of one’s own fulfillment is the highest goal in life, hockey players have far better reasons to work against the guys on their own team than against their opponents. If hockey was a state of nature, with no codes, no ethics, and no morality tales, the third line center would be hacking the ankles of the second line center and the backup goalie would be slipping roofies in the starter’s Gatorade.

The team-first code, then, is a kind of social contract that has to exist in order to allow the team to, you know, win hockey games. Everyone swallows their pride for the greater good: the best player pretends he’s just one of the guys and hasn’t been the beneficiary of countless incidents of preferential treatment; the worst players pretend they’re totally okay with getting less money and less ice time than everyone else. The pleasant fiction of we are all the same and we all want the same things is what keeps the wheels turning.

Maybe the instability of the sport contributes to the pretense of unity as well, both in the context of teams and in the PA. Roles in hockey are not always firm; a man might work his way up the hierarchy or fall down it. Maybe part of the reason players extend the courtesy is that they hope (or fear) that someday they might be on the other side. Second liners hope that, if they make the first line, the guy who goes down will accept the change gracefully. Third liners know that someday they’re going to be on the fourth line, and model the kind of treatment they’d want to receive. Within the PA, players aren’t just fighting for what they can get as who they are now, but for what they might be able to get in the future when they’re either much better or much worse. Maybe, at the very root of it, putting the team first is nothing more than the Golden Rule, hockey version.

In this context, it is only a guy like Hamrlik- a veteran on the end of his career, knowing there is literally nothing for him at all in the next CBA- who can nakedly serve his immediate interest. His willingness to say so stems from his nothing-to-lose situation and obviously reads badly to those who still feel as though they have a lot on the line. But more than that, players have learned to expect and rely on the support of teammates who have every reason to wish them ill. That trust is what makes their work pleasant and profitable, maybe even what makes it possible. To look across the room and know that there sits a man who is perfectly willing to publicly act against your needs for his own flies in the face of what you need to believe to play with someone.

I’ve been critical before of the way hockey ethics expect uniform behavior from non-uniform players. Sometimes, frankly, the game demands too much sameness in the name of unity, and when good players are ostracized just because they don’t talk or act in a perfectly cliched way, it hurts both the specific team and the sport as a whole. There should be more room than there is for dissent and difference within the bounds of professionalism. That said, in this case Hamrlik’s behavior is rather more than just expressing a different point of view. It’s expressing a point of view that implies an action which, if successful, would do active harm to the interests of some of his own teammates. I can’t blame the men who’ve shared the ice with him for feeling betrayed.