Canes’ Westgarth takes lead role off the ice

calexander@newsobserver.comFebruary 17, 2013 

— Kevin Westgarth won’t lead the Carolina Hurricanes in goals scored or minutes played this season. His biggest on-ice contributions should come as a fourth-line banger and a willing pugilist.

Westgarth’s game Thursday was typical. The big forward fought with Toronto tough guy Colton Orr, made the most of his limited playing time and was part of a 3-1 victory over the Maple Leafs at PNC Arena.

But Westgarth’s contribution to his sport in the past year was more substantial. The son-in-law of former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, Westgarth had a big hand in the painstaking work that went into hammering out the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement, ending the lockout and getting the players back on the ice.

Westgarth, 29, downplays his role in the negotiations.

“I’m fine out of the spotlight and being known as a fourth-line guy who stands up for his teammates,” Westgarth said. “That’s just fine with me.”

Westgarth was on the players’ negotiating committee and a part of many intense CBA talks. He was one of the players seen standing tall behind Donald Fehr, the NHL Players Association’s executive director, at press conferences.

Westgarth was the subject of a long profile in the New York Times, which he said was unexpected.

“My guess is people were hearing my name and had no idea who I was,” he said, laughing.

But NHL executives knew. At one point, when times were tense and the negotiations stalled, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly lunched privately with NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr and invited one player along — Westgarth.

“We were all very impressed with Kevin throughout the entire duration of the negotiation,” Daly said. “He was smart, articulate and thoughtful. Most of all, he was level-headed throughout, and dealt with the issues and our differences in position in a consistently professional manner — he never appeared angry or let things get personal.”

Westgarth, who was educated at Princeton and played four years of college hockey for the Tigers, was a member of the Los Angeles Kings at the time. Though undrafted, he has his name on the Stanley Cup after the Kings’ stirring Cup run last season.

Westgarth lived in Raleigh during the offseason. Married to Meagan Cowher, whom he met at Princeton, he joined the Hurricanes players skating at Raleigh Center Ice during the lockout but was often off to attend the increasingly tense CBA meetings.

“I rode the roller coaster like everyone else,” Westgarth said. “Being a little closer to it, you had a better appreciation for what was actually going on as to the spin or media portrayals of it.

“There were times it looked great and you’d get ramped up to get playing, and then things would come crashing down and dash everybody’s hopes. We got it together in the nick of time. It was extremely interesting to be part of it.”

Westgarth said he had several talks about CBA issues during the lockout with Bill Cowher, noting Cowher could provide perspective as a former coach.

“As a coach he hates guaranteed contracts because he feels like it takes away the motivation of the players,” Westgarth said. “I understand that, but I don’t think that has been borne out too greatly (in the NHL) — where a guy signed a long term deal and absolutely shut it down.”

Cowher, in turn, said he enjoyed the give-and-take with his son-in-law. He said he wasn’t surprised when Westgarth emerged as a key figure in the CBA negotiations.

“One thing about Kevin is he’s a smart kid who has a unique ability to see the big picture,” said Cowher, a former N.C. State football standout. “At that age, an athlete often can look at things with one viewpoint. To look at it objectively and be able to articulate it objectively is not always easy to do.

“But Kevin could talk philosophically both from the players’ and management standpoint. He could step back and separate his emotions from his judgment. He really wanted something that would work for everyone, that was a fair deal.”

Westgarth’s new-found profile became part of the family discussion. Cowher’s younger daughter, Lindsay, dates Duke forward Ryan Kelly, and Westgarth and Kelly are good friends. Westgarth has attended Duke games at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“He’s a real smart guy,” Kelly said. “A graduate of Princeton, and obviously hockey’s his first love. He certainly knows a lot of other things, and I think the players appreciated that and wanted to take advantage of other things he could do.”

The morning of Jan. 6, after marathon NHL negotiating sessions in New York, the news broke that an agreement had been reached on a CBA. The lockout soon was lifted and normalcy returned.

Westgarth took particular satisfaction in working to secure a stronger pension plan for the players. It became his area of expertise and he liked the end result.

“Our pension now is on par with some of the best in the industry,” he said.

With his CBA work done and a season about to begin, Westgarth was off for L.A. And then, just like that, he was back in Raleigh.

On Jan. 13, Westgarth was traded by the Kings to the Hurricanes in exchange for forward Anthony Stewart and two draft picks. He soon found himself in the Canes’ locker room at PNC Arena, now a teammate of the players he skated with at RCI for three months.

“He is a real quality guy,” Canes defenseman Jay Harrison said. “He was one of our frontline guys on the (CBA) issues and a huge part of the pension work that may be the best gain the players got out of the agreement.”

All in all, it has been a big year for Westgarth — help win a Cup, help negotiate a CBA, then join your “hometown” team.

“He’s in a really good place right now,” Bill Cowher said. “He’s among good people, in a very good organization that’s trying to put together a championship team.”

At 6-4 and 234 pounds, Westgarth is Carolina’s biggest forward and already has a pair of heavyweight fights under his belt, both against the Leafs. The Amherstburg, Ont., native has played eight of 13 games for the Canes (8-4-1), the Southeast Division leaders who face the Montreal Canadiens on Monday at the Bell Centre.

“I never saw the lockout going as deep as it did and it was unfortunate,” Westgarth said. “But that’s in the past now. I just think it’s fantastic we have a season to play.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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