Still Falling Apart
If there's a lasting legacy from the Alan Eagleson years at the NHL Players' Association, it could be described in a simple phrase that could be the union's motto.
Never trust anyone, either inside or outside the association.
Don't trust the NHL or the media, and don't necessarily trust anyone inside the union, some of whom from time to time must be purged for counter-revolutionary thoughts and actions. In rapid succession, the union has turned on three executive directors in less than five years, sometimes explaining what happened, sometimes not. It's like China in the 1960s, even more so given that while in theory a democracy, the hockey union is controlled by a small clutch of hired executives and player reps while the vast majority of NHL players don't give a hoot or are waiting to be told what they think.
So Paul Kelly has followed Ted Saskin and Bob Goodenow out the door, and the release from the NHLPA this morning regarding Kelly's departure was downright hilarious in its unwillingness to provide the hockey world with any specific information on why Kelly has been ousted.
This morning's release said the executive committee "voted overwhelmingly" to dump Kelly, the man who put Eagleson in jail, and said it followed an "in depth analysis of the NHLPA's operations."
Everyone is reading something into this, that it's the result of the unseen hand of Goodenow, or the departed former ombudsman Eric Lindros, or hardliners like Chris Chelios and Dwayne Roloson, the people who got rid of Saskin after he was found to be spying on association e-mails.
Must be a nice office to work in, huh? So comforting to always know the guy who's working in the office beside you may be secretly plotting against you. Goodenow and Saskin had a parting of the ways, and Kelly and Lindros were at each other's throats for months. Now it's lawyer Ian Penney and ombudsman Buzz Hargrove that may have led the charge against Kelly, men who were supposedly under his charge at the union.
Eagleson, way back when, was seen as too close to the league, and he betrayed the players. Now, the union seems incapable of ever fully trusting its leadership, or at least putting someone in place who isn't immediately the object of a coup attempt.
Meanwhile, most players simply want nothing to do with the union, not surprisingly given the way the organization collapsed during the 2004-05 lockout. The players now know that when push comes to shove there will be those among them that will jump ship and seek to cut their own deal, that the Europeans in the group will simply pack up and head home to play if there's another work stoppage, all of which adds to the internal distrust that has come to be the main feature of this dysfunctional organization.
The NHL general ignores the thoughts of the union because it can, because the union is too busy fighting itself to mount an effective opposition to policies and programs of the league with which it might disagree. Players are now coughing up more than 20 per cent of each and every paycheque to an escrow fund that few understand. The league has ignored the NHLPA on topics like franchise relocation and television, and now will once again have little or no idea who they should be dealing with at the union.
Does any of this matter to hockey fans? Not really, although in theory, a well-organized union could serve as an effective counter-weight to the league. But in general most fans believe the union does little of value for the game - the wonderful Goals and Dreams program would be one exception - and is there simply to serve the needs of wildly rich hockey players.
Talk that a more hard-line approach is required by the union is nearly laughable now that the league knows that it can break this weak-willed bunch just as easily in 2012 as it did in 2005. There is no rival league and there is no other meaningful employment option for hockey players who draw hundreds of thousands of dollars in paycheques.
Maybe Kelly wasn't hardline enough for some. But he was practical and reasonable. His biggest error may have been a naive belief he could trust those with whom he was working.
The knives at the NHLPA, it seems, are never actually put away.