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As a young man, Ted Saskin never thought he would one day work in sports. How would he carve up the ice like his Montreal Canadiens idols, Jean Beliveau and Ken Dryden, and still keep Shabbat? Instead, like so many good Jewish boys, Saskin pursued a career in law. And after he graduated from the University of Toronto Law School in 1983, Saskin did indeed begin work as a commercial litigator for a large Toronto law firm.
In time, though, Saskin's firm took on several sports-related cases, and he found himself working with more and more sports groups among them the National Hockey League's Players Association. In 1992, the NHLPA hired Saskin to oversee its licensing and merchandising operations. From there his involvement only increased, culminating in the tumultuous negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 NHL season. This August, Saskin was named the NHLPA's first Orthodox Jewish executive director.
It's a critical time for someone in Saskin's position. Well beyond the normal responsibilities of running the NHLPA overseeing day-to-day operations, representing 916 players in negotiations, defending disciplined players and reviewing every policy the league throws the players' way Saskin must help struggle to win back fans after last season's lockout. This looks to be especially difficult in the basketball-oriented United States, where hockey was struggling even before the season was cancelled. Saskin, however, is optimistic.
â€œThe rebound has been much faster than we thought,â€ he said. â€œTicket sales are going strongly in all 30 markets. There's a palpable excitement from the fans.â€
Winning over fans, Saskin believes, â€œall comes down to the game on ice, to the extent that we can make the game more exciting for fans to watch.â€
To that extent, play in the NHL will differ this year with the introduction of various rules changes that are meant to solve a lot of the NHL's problems: lack of offense, lack of speed, too many time-consuming penalties and too many tied games.
â€œThere's great opportunity to make the game more exciting to watch, and we're committed both the players and the owners to making sure it works,â€ Saskin said of the rules changes.
Moreover, Saskin and the NHL players now find themselves under an economic system they never wanted. At the start of the lockout, the NHLPA said emphatically: â€œWe will never accept a salary cap.â€ Nonetheless, they ultimately did accept the CBA with a salary cap of $38 million much lower than a lot of teams' payrolls were two years ago.
On the other hand, Saskin noted, there are some very player-friendly items in the CBA, such as a lower age for unrestricted free agency. Saskin's approach to future CBA negotiations will be to see how it unfolds over the next six to eight years. â€œIt takes at least two years to really evaluate a new CBA,â€ he said.
What clearly has to happen immediately, though, is to overcome a whole year of mudslinging and hard feelings. According to the upbeat Saskin, both sides will be able to put the past behind them and carry on.
â€œAlways after a labor dispute, we all move forward and forget about the bitterness,â€ he said. â€œWe had a bitter labor dispute in 1994, but we managed to come out of that and move on.
â€œIt's in our best interests to work together to 'grow the pie.' The time between labor negotiations is usually spent growing the pie for everyone, and it was only in the months leading up to the negotiations that things got intense and some harsh words began to be exchanged.â€
In order for hockey to fully recovery in North America, both the owners and the players have to form a partnership with each other and with the fans. Or, in Saskin's words, to â€œwork to re-establish the ties between everybody to grow the game. Everyone is committed to working together, and the fans will benefit as a result.â€ The players, Saskin said, simply have to â€œdo what they've always done: be great ambassadors, be consummate professionals on and off the ice.â€
That's a subject with which Saskin himself is already familiar. As an observant Jew, he takes about an hour and a half out of each day for prayers, eats only kosher food (even at meetings) and does not work at all on Shabbat and holidays no matter what. That's 66 days out of the working year that Saskin has to take off, in an environment that demands nearly all-the-time commitment. During the negotiations for the CBA, when the end was near and negotiations shifted into high gear heading into the weekend, Saskin had to call off the meetings and tell everyone that he was unavailable on Saturday.
How did he pull off something like that, slowing down negotiations? And how did his colleagues respond? Actually, Saskin said, â€œNo one questioned my commitment to the cause, and they respected it tremendously.â€
Not that it's easy to meet the demands of his job and his religion simultaneously. But as Saskin proves, it can be done. â€œIf you organize your schedule accordingly, then you can accomplish everything you need to in the allocated time,â€ he said.
Saskin does not see Shabbat as an impediment or an inconvenience, and neither do his colleagues. If anything, Saskin regards Shabbat and the festivals as a blessing. It allows him to shift focus away from his work.
â€œI enjoy knowing that I have one day a week focused on family, not work,â€ Saskin said. He has been able to use Shabbat to refocus, which has been a source of energy for him since well before his involvement with the NHLPA. â€œI don't consider it to be a disadvantage at all,â€ he said.
The same cannot be said, however, for an observant Jew wishing to become an NHL player. Instead of sitting behind a desk and making conference calls, an NHL player's schedule involves a full slate of games, practices, interviews and traveling all across the continent. The schedule allows for little free time, almost no full days off, and no free time at all on a game day. So an observant Jew, who could not play, practice or travel on Shabbat, would have quite a few scheduling obstacles to overcome.
â€œIt's the reality of the sport that there are games scheduled on Friday and Saturday and travel times on Shabbat,â€ said Saskin. It's unlikely that any player would be able to succeed in the NHL with these restrictions.â€
Saskin knows he would not have been able to replicate his success as an observant lawyer had he been a player. But he holds out hope that, one day, a Shabbat-observant player could indeed break through.
â€œI like to say, 'Never say never,'â€ he said. â€œIf there is a player with the requisite skill level, then appropriate arrangements could be made,â€ he said.
Such a player could even one day hail from Israel, where ice hockey has made great strides in recent years. Saskin knows this because, in his many trips to the Jewish state, he has checked out the Canada Center in Metulla, home of Israel's ice hockey program, and viewed the progress of Israel's program from up close. And Saskin likes what he sees. â€œThey've made tremendous improvements, and I'm aware of the contributions made to them through my work with the International Ice Hockey Federation.â€
Israel's hockey program has surpassed the programs of other countries that have played hockey for decades, advancing to the second tier of international hockey. At this rate, an Olympic team may even be on the horizon.
â€œI'd really like to see them improve, as I have a personal attachment to their success,â€ Saskin said.
An Israeli hockey player, Saskin said, whether he is observant or not, would likely be welcome in the NHL. â€œThere's certainly an opportunity in the future, especially with the NHL's recent trend in becoming more international,â€ he said. â€œI'd like to see it happen, the same way as I'd like to see a Chinese player one day.â€
The difference being, of course, that an Israeli would be able to tell the head of the NHLPA something that a Chinese player wouldn't: â€œShabbat shalom.â€