Tension had been building up between the Professional Hockey Players Association and the PHL throughout the summer ever since several prominent players made the decision to disclose their salaries. Things boiled over during training camp and at the conclusion of the pre-season, the players voted to strike. The union wanted mandatory full disclosure of player salaries, 45 percent of hockey-related revenues, and unrestricted free agency. Alan Garcia attempted to order the players back on the ice, even pushing the federal government to issue back-to-work legislation. The government said they would not get involved so Garcia and the owners were left with no choice but to negotiate with the players. Garcia hired Darryl Byrd, a well-known lawyer from Boston to negotiate on behalf of the owners. Byrd was known as a no-nonsense, tough negotiator who knew how to play hardball and made it known immediately he would not give in to the players easily. October 5, the day the season was supposed to start, came and went with no resolution. The strike went on through October and November as negotiations would start, then break down. The players continued to stand firm. By December, when there was a real fear that the unthinkable could happen and the season could be lost, the talks became more serious as both sides tried desperately to find middle ground. Finally, on December 6, Garcia put an end to the strike by agreeing to give the players 42 percent of revenues. Full disclosure of player salaries would also be mandatory, meaning players could now measure their worth against each other’s salaries. Unrestricted free agency would also be implemented, but not until the player reached age 30, or had played ten seasons in the league. The collective agreement would expire after the 1995-96 season with an option for two more seasons overall, the strike was seen as a huge success for the players, who seemingly had brought the league to its knees. A full year without hockey would be an unprecedented disaster for the league and Alan Garcia knew it.
A shortened 56-game regular season finally got underway on January 1, 1986. Teams would only play within their own conference. Philadelphia immediately took advantage of the odd schedule. Playing only against teams from the weaker Eastern Conference, The Redshirts managed to finish the year first overall in the league. Veteran defenseman Gary Johnson was a big reason for Philly’s success as he took home Defenseman of the Year honors, while 25-year-old Jeff Waters also enjoyed a career year with 54 goals. In the Northeast Division, Nova Scotia enjoyed another strong year, finishing first in their division, while Toronto returned to the post-season thanks in large part to the play of big rookie defenseman Randy Fernandez. In the West, Vancouver finally reached the playoffs for only the second time in their PHL history and the first time since 1970. St. Louis won the Central Division again, finishing just two points ahead of a surprising Milwaukee Choppers team. The Choppers, playing their first season in Milwaukee, made a big trade in early February when they sent rookie Elliot Andrews to the Detroit Mustangs in exchange for future hall-of-fame defenseman and Detroit captain Cliff Lyle. Lyle led all PHL defensemen in points as the Choppers won their last 16 games in a row to take second place in the West.
Despite all that was going on in the PHL, the hockey world was equally focused on the Quebec Hockey League in ’85-86. 18-year-old Vincent Ducharme was on pace to be the most dominant scorer in Canadian Junior Hockey history and had the full attention of the PHL. The Montreal Royale got off to a horrific start in January, losing their first 11 games of the year. Just three days prior to the season, head coach Don Shelburne had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease. Shelburne recovered but the season was already a lost cause for his new team by the time he made his Montreal debut. The Royale plummeted to last place with an 8-43-5 record, “earning” the right to select first overall in the draft. Montreal fans gave their team a standing ovation at the conclusion of the season, overjoyed that Vincent Ducharme would don Montreal colors. Alan Garcia, however, was not so pleased with the Royale. Garcia launched an investigation into the possibility that Montreal “tanked” their season in an effort to get Ducharme. Regular number one goaltender Victor Malmsten had only played 28 of the Royale’s 56 games, while several of Montreal’s regular skaters were healthy scratches toward the end of the year. Shelburne insisted the Royale were merely “resting” their players, not wanting to risk injuries at the end of a lost season. Garcia issued a strong warning to the Royale and all teams in the league that any similar behavior in the future would result in a loss of draft picks. For Montreal, it didn’t matter. It appeared their future was set as the team began selling jerseys with Vincent Ducharme’s name on them before the playoffs even started.
While the bottom-feeders excitedly prepared for what scouts called the strongest entry draft in PHL history, the contending teams prepared to battle for the Lewis Cup. The first place Philadelphia Redshirts were intent on ending the “Donald Graves Curse” and finally hoisting the Cup for the first time in franchise history, the St. Louis Spirits were determined to return to the final and resume their dynasty, while every other team was bent on taking both teams down.