Monday, November 9, 2009

The three-ring circus known as the NHLPA

So this is a saga that's not even really funny anymore. These guys run themselves like a student society at a university. They're weighted down with infighting. Committees are performing coos on the leadership. Oh hey! that's not bad enough, let's re-write the constitution. Next comes embezzlement.

And then Buzz Hargrove quit Sunday.

I mean this guy is the former head of the Canadian Auto Workers union. If he can't put up with the shit, who can?

But this is one of those issues that I was a little confused about. How did it get to this, why/how do people keep saying they "can't do their jobs in these circumstances"? I read a fairly decent account by CBC's Elliot Friedman of what is wrong with the NHLPA. I thought i'd pass it along.

The battle raging inside the NHLPA

November 7, 2009 05:40 PM | Posted by Elliotte Friedman

To understand the battle raging inside the NHL Players' Association, you must recognize what's happening outside its walls.

Here's an example:

Last season, two players got into a heated debate about a collective bargaining agreement issue. Player A is an elite star who took a "hometown discount" to stay with his current team. Player B - very good, but not on the same level - was heading into free agency.

Every summer, the union has the right to bump the salary cap by five per cent via something called the escalator clause. It seems like a no-brainer, except there's a catch: it increases the amount players lose in escrow. So, Player A was arguing against it. For him, the discount cost even more. In addition to the money he left on the table, he was losing a larger chunk of what he signed for.

Player B argued the opposite. He was approaching his best chance to sign a huge free-agent contract. Never again, he felt, would he get this kind of an opportunity to hit the jackpot. He ferociously argued in favour of the escalator, wanting every dollar possible.

In the end, the rest of the team sided with Player B. But, there were angry exchanges and hard feelings.

On the surface, the fight inside the NHLPA is all about Paul Kelly's firing. But, it goes deeper than that. Right now, the union finds itself at a crossroads, in the middle of its most important decisions since the overthrow of Alan Eagleson. It's not only about who will lead - it's also about where to go with the next CBA, how to motivate a disinterested majority and how to rebuild an organization rife with distrust.

"I don't know how it got this bad," one player, active within the union, said this week. "We have a lot of work to do."


Where did it start? During the 2004-05 NHL lockout. The union usually did a great job of keeping its membership informed, but there were several major failures this time. The day before the PA made its proposal for a 24 per cent rollback on all salaries, one player called the office to find out what the new offer would include. The decision was made not to tell him, or others, for maximum effect.

You can imagine the reaction.

Days before the lockout ended, Scott Walker went on TSN's Off the Record. Asked about a cap, he said players would never accept it. Less than 72 hours later, a salary cap was in place. Same with Bryan McCabe. The FAN 590 Radio station in Toronto ran clips of him saying, "We will never accept a cap" the day the deal was announced.

It didn't go unnoticed. A lot of trust was lost. As one player said, "How about a warning?"


As the NHL returned to action, the NHLPA imploded. Bob Goodenow, who ruled with an iron fist, was forced out. Ted Saskin, given the throne in controversial fashion, tried to dictate in a similar manner, but never had similar respect.

Veterans were at each other's throats. It took years for Chris Chelios and Trevor Linden to make peace over Saskin's ascension. Last month, when Brendan Shanahan's name was mentioned as a possibility to run the union, one player said, "No way. Not after what he did during the lockout."

(For the record, Shanahan openly questioned whether Goodenow's hard-line stance was the right thing. Some players saw that as disloyalty. Others said it was fair comment.)

Long-time union stalwarts like Daniel Alfredsson vowed never to be active again. It was too much aggravation.


The lockout had another unintentional consequence on the NHLPA: it changed the makeup of the membership. The new emphasis on speed and skill, rather than obstruction, made the league younger. Some older players never returned. Others didn't last. The turnover ended careers of people who'd been through three labour stoppages. The newer players didn't have that history.

Union members were divided into two groups: those who were still militant, and those who didn't care. The second group outnumbered the first one. That led to the general apathy, but it also meant that a smaller group of players had larger control over decision-making.

Those who support Paul Kelly claim that's what happened over the past year. As concerns about escrow grew - at one point last season, players were losing a quarter of their paycheques - there was grumbling that Kelly wasn't hard-line enough to correct that in the next CBA. Make no mistake: the key issue in Kelly's ejection was the escrow tax, ironic since he wasn't even working for the NHLPA when it was enacted.

Even if there were legitimate criticisms about Kelly's work, so many conflicts-of-interest existed within the NHLPA that it's difficult to determine their real truth. At least one advisory board member, Ron Pink, interviewed for Kelly's job and badly wanted it, no matter his denials. Another advisory board member, Dan O'Neill, did consulting work for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The ombudsman, first Eric Lindros, then Buzz Hargrove, openly discussed their dislike of Kelly, which kind of defeats the purpose of being an ombudsman. Kelly's supporters accused these people of overstepping their roles, sticking their noses where they didn't constitutionally belong.

On top of all that, Ian Penny and Kelly couldn't stand one another.

Kelly didn't see it coming until too late. There were a number of things used against him: a negative workplace health survey; the fact he spoke out against staged fighting without consulting his membership; and his decision to read confidential minutes of a players' meeting. (That was a huge mistake on his part. Many players were still angry at Saskin for reading their emails.)

But what really doomed him was a perception among hardliners that he wouldn't be tough enough to fight the escrow. According to sources, one person who definitely held that opinion was advisory board member George Cohen.

Cohen, nominated by U.S. President Obama as director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, questioned Kelly's ability to bargain a solution. Cohen's reputation appears beyond reproach, which is why it carried a ton of clout. But the execution was butchered - the now-infamous late-night vote to fire Kelly.

"Honestly," said one retired player, "Have you ever made a good decision at 3 a.m.?"

The hardcore anti-Kelly group used the general apathy to get their way. (As the Bruins were arguing Andrew Ference's role in all of this, one player said, "Maybe we should support the guy who did all this work while the rest of us were golfing this summer." Most others thought Ference took advantage.)

However, there were two things they didn't count on. First was Glenn Healy's resignation. (Full disclosure, in case anyone reading this doesn't know: We work together. But it should also be known he thinks I'm too easy on Kelly's enemies.)

When Sean Avery ended a between-periods interview with Healy by saying, "We need you back," (or something like that), it might have been the only time anyone in the league agreed with him. Healy was - and still is - a popular figure among players. It's no surprise that his resignation became a rallying point.

The second thing they didn't count on was the agents.


Maybe the players don't care about the NHLPA, but the agents sure do. They are generally distrusting of one another to begin with, constantly worrying (and with good reason) about poaching of clients. But, five years after the lockout, there are still hard feelings about who sided with whom. A number of high-powered agents felt Goodenow was taking them off a cliff.

It was their feeling that ownership had changed. There were guys with more money, who didn't have hockey in their blood. They were willing to sacrifice a season to get rid of Goodenow and get cost-certainty. The big agents felt he didn't recognize that and didn't understand it wasn't the same as 1994.

Goodenow himself couldn't stand them, which is interesting, because he used to be one. He believed that the NHLPA should have more of a role in negotiating contracts - if not take over the responsibility entirely - and would put pressure on them to constantly raise the salary bar. One of his close lieutenants was Penny.

Penny played an enormous role in Saskin's dismissal, going to police with evidence that Saskin illegally read player emails. In that battle, he and Chelios were on the same side. Privately, some players accuse Chelios of being biased in this case, because Kelly was his guy. (Chelios vehemently denies the accusation.)

Many of the agents who fought Goodenow wanted no part of Penny's return to power. It was believed Penny was going to bring back Ian Pulver, another Goodenow-era ally. Pulver - who had been very successful in arbitration cases - left the NHLPA when Saskin took over to become an agent on his own. He now represents Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and top Russian prospect Kirill Kabanov, among others. (Pulver denies he was going to return.)

There were some - mostly from smaller agencies - who backed Penny and didn't have an issue with Pulver. But, the bigger agencies weren't thrilled about the idea and rallied their players. When Sidney Crosby stepped up and asked Penny to remove himself from the players' conference call on Oct. 18, Penny was finished.

(The McMurtry report sure didn't help him, either. If Penny was supposed to be valuable for his long-term "institutional knowledge" of the NHLPA, his detractors said, how come he didn't realize McMurtry was buddies with Alan Eagleson?)

That leads us to where we are. The question is: Where is the NHLPA going?

"Nobody can win," one agent said about the current fight. "The association has to move on, and you can't do that without impartial people picking up the pieces and rebuilding. Right now, every move one side makes gets criticized by the other."

"We have to move forward," said one player. "No one trusts anyone else. We're always looking to blame someone."

Certainly, there must be an investigation into what went wrong. Some heads must roll. But, at the same time, you have to begin repairing your rifts. The CBA extends through next year, although the players have the option to extend until after the 2011-12 season. (It is expected that they will.)

Five years before the 2004 lockout, Goodenow was preparing for it. He had a plan, informed the players what it was, and took steps to put it together. By that measure, the players are already two years behind.

For example, it's believed they will ask for an NBA-style limit on the escrow. Right now, basketball players can only lose nine per cent of their salaries and benefits. That's a max. Last season, their NHL brethren lost 12.9 per cent. How, exactly, are they going to prepare this proposal - and others - with all of this upheaval? They can't stand this CBA, but are well aware another lockout is suicide, especially since they already caved to a cap.

So, what are the solutions?


This is a clear victory for Chris Chelios. He's won. All of the people he wanted to get rid of are either gone, or going. He's got an empty canvas to paint with.

What he should do is pass the brush.

This organization hasn't had peace since it capitulated to the NHL in 2005. Saskin came - and left - under a cloud of suspicion. Kelly came in quietly, but left angrily. There was collateral damage on both sides, and it's time for a reset. If the NHLPA is ever going to right itself, the people involved in fights must step back.

There is a role for Chelios in the future, when, at age 850, he decides to quit. Right now, he's a lightning rod. Already there are accusations of intimidation and bias. Even if they're not true, he's too closely aligned with one side. All of the people he wanted to get rid of - Penny, Pink, O'Neill - they're gone. Buzz Hargrove is more radioactive than enriched plutonium. No one's going to listen to him. These individuals were permanently tainted by the Chicago coup.

Chelios never rested in his attempts to get rid of Saskin. Surely, there are people now who will never rest fighting him. He should recuse himself; let Nicklas Lidstrom, Rob Blake and Mark Recchi handle this.

Other recommendations:


Where are the young players? Crosby made his voice heard, but what about others? The current CBA ends after next season, although the PA has the right to extend one more year. (That's expected to happen.) Chelios, Lidstrom, Blake and Recchi will probably be retired by then. Those between 25 and 30 years old need to step up and show leadership. Young stars (Joe Thornton) and future stars (Drew Doughty) will be asked to take more active roles. This battle is being fought for them. If they don't, they deserve what they'll get.


"You wouldn't believe how much money we're paying to people who aren't working for us," one player said.

Another player - and I stress this is someone who was not a Kelly fan - made a great analogy: "When a team hires a new GM, they let him being in his people and leaves behind the people he needs. Why can't we do the same?"

Right now, the constitution is crippling. The executive director reports to the 30 player reps. There is also an ombudsman, an advisory board and one retired player liaison for each of the six NHL divisions. I understand checks and balances, not wanting anyone to get too drunk with power, but this is too much.

Bill Gregson was runner-up to Kelly in the most recent search for executive director. Even though they were competitors for the top position, Kelly was so impressed with Gregson that he tried to hire him, anyway. (He accepted a job as CEO of The Brick and isn't interested now.)

"The players have to decide what they want," Gregson said last week. "You can't run it constantly answering to 30 people all over North America...That's a tough spot for anyone to go into. What you have to do is make sure you find the right structure, with the right person."

"Then - this is the key thing - you have to let them go run it."

"We have to spell out – clearly – what an executive director can do by himself and what he needs approval for," another player said. "That will eliminate a lot of the confusion."


Under Bob Goodenow, the NHLPA fought everything the NHL tried. It worked for a long time. He made the players a lot of money. Under Saskin and Kelly, the PA was a friendlier organization, more publicly comfortable with Gary Bettman. The right approach is somewhere in the middle - polite, but firm.

The Goodenow approach is outdated with the salary cap in place. That's never going away. But, the NHL will step up and try to hit another home run, which is its job. Maybe it's guaranteed contracts. Maybe it's longer entry-level deals. Maybe it's more buyout periods and a less-onerous formula. Maybe it's changing unrestricted free agency from 27-year-olds with four seasons of experience OR anyone with seven years (as under the current deal) to players aged 27 AND with seven seasons. That one-word change is a big deal.

If the players want to cap escrow, they'll have to decide what to give up in exchange. They'd better find someone smart to make that decision.

There are so many possible structures. Maybe a hockey guy surrounded by lawyers. Maybe a labour lawyer surrounded by businessmen (that was the Goodenow model). Maybe a businessman surrounded by lawyers or hockey people.

Whatever they choose, this is it. They've swung and missed twice, with an NHL presence looming as large as Mariano Rivera's. This is the NHLPA's last chance to get it right.

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