Griffins Could Feel…


    GRAND RAPIDS — Labor strife may be a bigger concern for Grand Rapids Griffins General Manager Bob McNamara this off-season than it was last year. If not bigger, then certainly more complicated.

    Last summer, under the growing threat of a work stoppage or lockout, the National Hockey League had a labor agreement with the National Hockey League Players Association and that contract let the Detroit Red Wings sign the 13 players the franchise is committed to giving the Griffins. With that baker’s dozen in hand, McNamara could then focus on signing the nine players he needed to fill out the roster.

    But the NHL and the Red Wings haven’t had a collective bargaining agreement with the union since last September, and without one Detroit can’t sign anyone. And zero leaves the Griffins’ only GM in its nine-year history with a void of 22 players, not the usual nine.

    “That is one of the difficult things in planning for next season. Until they have an agreement, they’re not in business,” said McNamara of the Red Wings.

    “In terms of signing players, signing free agents or signing players that are their property, they can’t do anything until a deal is done.”

    At least for the immediate future, McNamara said he would run the franchise as though the Red Wings won’t have a labor agreement. That means McNamara — and the other general managers in the American Hockey League — will try to sign their parent-club’s prospects to AHL contracts. It’s not a given, though, that all those players will agree to sign.

    “Those guys who are prospects can sign wherever they want. But it’s my assumption that all those guys are going to sign with their NHL team’s affiliate,” said McNamara, who will be entering the fourth year of a five-year affiliation with Detroit in the fall.

    “Here is the other thing, though. There are prospects that have a bit of leverage and they might not come and play in the American league unless they know they have a deal with the Red Wings, and the Red Wings aren’t able to get any deals done right now. That is the one gray area that is going to make it difficult,” he added.

    Detroit had 18 players spend at least part of the season with the Griffins this past year. Only seven of them, however, have a contract that extends past this season. And those pacts are only valid if the NHL has a CBA in place by October as all seven belong to the NHLPA.

    And replacement players remain a possibility for the NHL. Red Wings owner Mike Illitch recently told the Detroit News that he would sign replacements for next season if the NHL declares an impasse has been reached. If one is declared, that likely means players targeted for the AHL would go to the NHL, and East Coast Hockey League players, rated as a rung below those in the AHL, would find themselves getting bumped up a notch to the AHL.

    “You would see more East Coast league players playing at this level and you would see that effect going all the way down. Obviously, it’s important for me to know who is in the East Coast league, and I’m going to head out in the next few weeks to see a bunch of East Coast league playoff games just to make certain that we’re covered,” said McNamara.

    “We have a pretty good idea of what is down there. But at the same time, it’s important to plan for every scenario and know what’s out there. If we do go with replacement players, it’s going to be a mad dash to sign guys at this level.”

    If the NHL and the NHLPA don’t get a CBA inked before the AHL playoffs end in June, McNamara could find himself in the most complicated off-season he has had since he arrived here from Cleveland

    “No question. No question. Last season’s off-season was somewhat complicated as well, but at least there was the ability to sign guys by the NHL,” he said. “This is going to be a different kind of complicated off-season, I think.”    

    …NHL’s Pain

    GRAND RAPIDS — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman surprised most analysts when he emerged from the league’s Board of Governors meeting recently and said the upcoming season would only start on time if the owners and the players had agreed to a Collective Bargaining Agreement.

    Many had speculated that Bettman would threaten to use replacement players — minor leaguers and NHL veterans willing to cross a picket line — to ensure that the league would begin play in October. Despite Bettman’s words, though, replacements are still in the picture and remain a real option for the Detroit Red Wings.

    “If we have to go to replacement players, I’m not that concerned,” Mike Illitch, owner of the Detroit franchise, told the Detroit News. “If we don’t make a deal and an impasse is declared, I feel we’ve got to play hockey.”

    Grand Rapids Griffins General Manager Bob McNamara told the Business Journal that what Bettman had to say was a good sign for the eight-month labor dispute, which led to the lockout and the cancellation of last season.

    “I think it shows that the relationship is, hopefully, softening between the two groups and that they understand that it is important to get a deal with this group of players rather than to try to bring in other players and to force the union to abide,” said McNamara.

    The Griffins will enter into the fourth year of their five-year affiliation with Detroit this fall. The AHL franchise annually hosts a game between Red Wings that marks the end of the team’s training camp, and it has been the Griffins’ top fundraising event for charity. The game was cancelled last year and it’s uncertain whether the Griffins would host one this year if the Detroit roster were comprised of replacement players.

    “Obviously, we hope they can get a deal done sooner rather than later,” said McNamara of the NHL and the players’ union. “It’s good news because it shows the hockey fan out their that the stance is softening in terms of moving closer to the middle and getting a deal done.”    

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