Friday, October 19, 2007

NHLPA Carrying On

The NHLPA is entering a new chapter in its history. The Ted Saskin chapter is definitely over and the Paul Kelly chapter is about to begin.

The NHLPA has selected Paul Kelly, a Boston lawyer, to be their new head. This is being put to a certification vote before he is officially hired. Paul Kelly has handled hockey related litigation in the past; including the case against former NHLPA head Alan Eagleson for fraud and embezzlement. He was also Marty McSorely's lawyer when McSorely was charged with assault on Donald Brashear (this was an incident that happened during a game). James Mirtle has a more in depth biography of Paul Kelly (as well as the two other candidates he beat out for the position.

The obvious question to ask is what will Kelly do as NHLPA head and will it be good for hockey in general? I think this question is being asked in a disingenous way by many (for example Bob McKenzie of TSN - McKenzie basically tells Kelly that he has to find some middle ground between fighting with the NHL (like Goodenow) and colluding with the NHL (like Eagleson or Saskin)). This is the media protecting their interest in NHL hockey. Eric Duhatshek of the Globe and Mail has a more balanced viewpoint.

What is obvious is the NHL has not been willing to "play fair" with the NHLPA in the past. They have had corrupt NHLPA leaders who have been colluding with the NHL through most of its history. The only exception has been Bob Goodenow and when he stood up for the player's interests, much of the media turned him into a villain. It was amazing that the owners locked out the players and yet Goodenow was the villain. It turned out that enough players and player agents did not have the resolve to stay out of work long enough to fight the labor battle and the NHLPA caved and removed Goodenow, replacing him with Saskin, in what was a move that violated their own constitution. When some players (Trent Klatt, Chris Chelios et al) challenged the way this was done, the media branded them as "dead-enders". The myth of an impartial media was shown not to be reality. The media makes tremendous money off of NHL hockey. They need to be in the good graces of the NHL to have the access to do this. In many cases, business interests are entangled. Thus it is in the financial interest to portray the NHL in a good light and the NHLPA badly if it opposes the NHL interests.

A sordid example of this entanglement comes from this example. In September 2005, when Chris Chelios was trying to press for details about how Ted Saskin replaced Bob Goodenow as NHLPA head, TSN's Gord Miller heard about this and passed details in an email to Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner. Miller told Daly that Chelios, along with former player Steve Larmer and lawyer Ian Pulver were among those leading the charge against Ted Saskin. Daly then forwarded this email to NHLPA head Ted Saskin. We have media members who instead of reporting the news are tipping off the NHL about it and we have the NHL passing information to the NHLPA to help keep their puppet NHLPA boss in power. This should be a scandal. Instead, it has not been well reported by many of the mainstream media outlets (The Globe and Mail is an exception). What is clear as the NHLPA goes forward with Paul Kelly in charge is that the NHL players are divided and an even greater number are apathetic toward labor issues. This reduces Kelly's options significantly. He does not have a backing of the players for any fight. The NHL knows this and may try to force a fight expecting Kelly to have to back down. There are many hardline NHL owners who feel the lockout did not produce nearly enough concessions from the players and will want more. I don't think Kelly can find this middle ground the media would like him to find because it doesn't exist. The NHL has never let it exist. When Kelly fails to find the non-existent middle ground, the same media members who are planting the idea that he should find it will start to vilify Kelly for his failure to do so.

Here is a Tom Benjamin post underscoring the idea that middle ground probably doesn't exist for Paul Kelly.

The next several years are going to be interesting on the business side of the NHL. As you point out, there are many hardline owners that want more from the players (mostly the ones that still struggle to make money and will only get worse as the cap and floor rise) but there are others that are now making some money (particularly the small market Canadian teams that are benefiting from the high dollar too) so whether those hard liners have the power to impose a hard line attitude on the rest of the owners is still uncertain. Plus most of the larger market teams are unlikely interested in doing much more to prop up the small market teams and we are seeing some conflict between the Rangers and the league regarding control of the teams website. It is still early to predict how it will all play out but the next 2-4 years could be interesting in the development of the player-owner relationship in the NHL.
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