The National Hockey League Players Association met for six hours today and afterward indicated that it was through being a rubber-stamp tool of the league's owners. The warning was clearly issued that unless there was a change of attitude on the owners' part, a player strike before the 1982-83 season is inevitable.
The quarrel is over present requirements for compensation to clubs whose free agents go elsewhere. The lack of movement among such free agents has reached the zero level, with clubs afraid to sign them for fear of losing more talented players.
"It's the unanimous feeling of the player representatives that the present structure is too restrictive," said Executive Director Alan Eagleson. "If the purchaser knows the price in advance, he is more inclined to make the deal than if he has fears the price will grow without his being able to do anything about it.
"We made a quick decision last June in Nassau that many of us were uncomfortable with. Now we will see what the owners have to propose. We are not satisfied at this stage on their reasonableness. There is no sense in our presenting anything reasonable, because the owners will immediately think it's unreasonable. The owners have from now until June 30 to convince us that they are serious about a change. But it appears now that we will trigger termination of the agreement, effective in 1982."
Last summer, to help accomplish the merger, the players signed a five-year agreement that continued the present compensation system. However, a clause permits its termination with two years' notice.
NHL President John Ziegler presented figures today that showed 137 players had become free agents during the four years of the system, with 115 signing with their old clubs and 22 moving. The salary increase for all 137 was more than 32 percent.
"The ownership is solid in wanting to continue it, but we're not inflexible," Ziegler said. "If there are major problems, we will negotiate. We want to avoid the polarization that develops in a no-contract situation. But clearly there has been no economic inhibition under the present system."
Clearly, there will be no progress when owners and players meet Tuesday.
A revolt against Eagleson, triggered by Boston's Mike Milbury, was successfully squelched, with Eagleson reelected unanimously today. A sevenman committee, including Milbury and two outsiders, will help groom a successor for Eagleson, who wishes to leave the job in 1982. Possibly coincidentally, that could be strike time.