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The NHLPA Is Sports’ Dysfunctional Stepchild

8th November 2009

In the world of sports labor, the battle has always been painted as being management against union. But, the cold hard truth is, the internal battles are the ones that weaken one side or the other and give rise to advantage.

So, I’m not so sure Gary Bettman is smiling today, but I’m certain the NHL’s players are a fragmented lot.

The recent story that is the NHL Players’ Association may be the most convoluted case of implosion U.S. professional sports has witnessed in over 30 years. The last time there was such internal turmoil, MLB ownership ranks were squabbling after the ascension of Marvin Miller and the MLBPA.

Now, it’s hockey’s turn, only this time, it’s the players union, not management.

If you haven’t followed this sad tale, here’s the timeline:

July 28, 2005Bob Goodenow who had been the Executive Director of the NHLPA through the 103-day lockout in ’94-’95 and the 2004-2005 labor stoppage that canceled the entire ’04-’05 NHL season, was asked to resign, and did so less that two weeks after the NHL and the NHLPA came to reach the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

July 28, 2005 – Ted Saskin, the former Senior Director of Business Affairs and Licensing since 1992, replaces Goodenow. Saskin immediately comes under fire by some players for the manner in which he is elected as well as well as his salary. Some players claimed at the time that Saskin was improperly hired to a five-term contract worth $2.13 million a year. As we’ll see, this behavior by the NHLPA is playing itself out now. In an odd twist that is playing out now, Chris Chelios, who at the time was with the Detroit Red Wings said that Trevor Linden, the union president who played for Vancouver, improperly negotiated a severance package with Goodenow and the new contract with Saskin. Goodenow received a severance package of more than $8 million, according to e-mail correspondence sent to The Toronto Star, which first reported the controversy at the time. In October of 2006, a group of player, led by Chelios, file a lawsuit in US Federal Court to remove Saskin and seek damages. In ’07, Saskin, and other union officials come under fire for accessing private email accounts of players and agents who have challenged his hiring. This activity will also come into play in the present.

March 11, 2007 – Saskin is placed on paid leave. The union’s executive board, after a vote made up of 30 player representatives and the six-member interim executive committee, voted to fire Saskin on a conference call. Saskin does not leave office until May 7,2007.  Saskin reportedly received nearly $750,000 US in accrued vacation pay and union shares. “I remain proud of all the work I did for NHL players over the last 16 years,” Saskin told the Canadian Press in an e-mail at the time.

June 28, 2007 – The union’s Executive Board selects Michael Cammalleri (Montreal Canadiens), Chelios (Detroit Red Wings), Shawn Horcoff (Edmonton Oilers), Eric Lindros (retired) and Robyn Regehr (Calgary Flames) to form a search committee for a new Executive Director in the wake of Saskin’s forced resigning. The effort is done with assistance of Reilly Partners, an executive search firm from Chicago. The committee recommends Paul Kelly, a founding partner of Kelly, Libby and Hoopes, and after a vote from the players, is announced as the new Executive Director of the NHLPA on October 24, 2007.

August 31, 2009 - Kelly is fired after several hours of meetings late into the night in Chicago. The decision was made by a vote from the NHLPA’s 30 player reps that comprise its Executive Board. The NHLPA released a statement  the following day saying, “Following the Executive Board’s review of the overall operation of the NHLPA, it was decided that Paul Kelly should no longer continue to serve as Executive Director.  We appreciate Mr. Kelly’s service to our Association.” Kelly was informed of the firing with NHLPA General Counsel Ian Penny. There have been rumblings that Kelly might be getting too close to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Kelly was also reportedly at odds with NHLPA Interim Ombudsman Buzz Hargrove, and according to Liz Mullen of the SportsBusiness Journal, “at least one member of the union’s outside advisory committee”, as well as Penny.

August 31, 2009 – On the same day as Kelly’s firing, Ian Penny, the longtime NHLPA General Counsel, is voted unanimously by the union’s executive committee members interim executive director

October 22, 2009 – Less than two months after Kelly’s firing, the PA calls for an investigation into Kelly’s firing.  After Kelly’s firing, there was a lack of clear explanation for why Kelly was removed. according to some players. Edmonton Oilers forward Shawn Horcoff, one of the 30 on the executive board said, “Until we’re able to inform all the players on exactly what happened, we’re really not going to be too specific.” More vague talk came from  Buzz Hargrove. “Given the findings that were presented to them, given the debate, they took a decision. It’s a decision they will feel very comfortable justifying with their fellow players once they see them in training camp.”

October 30, 2009 – Eight days after the investigation into Kelly’s firing is launched, Ian Penny resigns saying he had been constructively dismissed and “can no longer work under the present circumstances.” Along with Penny, multiple members of the NHLPA’s advisory board including former NHL player Steve Larmer, and Ken Baumgartner, as well as Dan O’Neill and Ron Lloyd, both connected to the NHLPA on the business side. Baumgartner writes an email to the PA’s members saying:

“Get involved and ask questions,” Baumgartner wrote in his resignation email. “Not just now but in the future. Care about the business side of the sport and players’ rights. The strength of the union lies in your locker rooms.  Ask whether the players and their advisers taking you down this dangerous path have ulterior motives. Revenge? Personal ambitions? Attempts to save face?

“I have grave concerns around the direction that the review committee is taking you. Those who loudly proclaim to protect the constitution appear to have ignored it. The role that I accepted no longer exists, and I can be of no use to you in the current structure.”

On top of these members, the NHLPA’s longtime outside counsel, leading Canadian labor attorney Paul Cavalluzzo, also resign. Cavalluzzo is important as he had been part of labor negotiations with the NHL. At the time, some in the Canadian press report that the NHLPA has ostensibly collapsed and in not functioning. The NHLPA in a statement makes a point of addressing the matter saying, “The NHLPA staff continues to work very hard on behalf of the players in all areas of the Association’s business and will continue to do so going forward.” An October 23rd letter from Penny to the NHLPA paints a picture as to why he resigned. Within it, Penny claims that, among other things, spying was being conducted by four veteran NHLPA members, and led by Chris Chelios:

In recent weeks, there have been a series of hostile and intimidating acts taken against members of the NHLPA staff. These acts are contrary to the legal obligation of the NHLPA to create a safe work environment that is free of harassment. Unfortunately, this obligation is not being fulfilled because of these acts, which include the following:

  • Chris Chelios is using staff members inside the office to monitor the meetings and discussions of their fellow employees and report back to him on their activities
  • Chelios has confronted multiple employees and interrogated them about why they were meeting with other staffers and what was said in their discussions
  • The most recent example of this surveillance campaign occurred on Tuesday, when Chelios sent me the following text message while I was meeting with four other managers in a board room:

“Ian when you r done can you please call me and let me know what you 5 staff members are discussing with each other i would like to know being your guys Emplyer.”

It is obvious based on this text message and other recent incidents that Chelios has staff members spying on their colleagues so that he can intimidate and harass the targeted staffers. This completely inappropriate conduct has created a hostile, fractured and distrustful work environment. It is the type of environment that exists in repressive, totalitarian regimes – not work places. It must stop immediately.

Chelios’ suggestion that he is the employer and that he is entitled to engage in this form of harassment is simply wrong. No employer is entitled to intimidate employees in this manner. In addition, this view reflects a misunderstanding of the relationship between the Executive Board and the staff. There are over 700 NHLPA members who dictate the union’s course through 30 Player Reps acting as a group. No single Player and no single Player Rep directs the day to day management of the NHLPA or its staff. Not only would that be a recipe for chaos, it would allow a single Player to engage in activities that may create legal liability for the entire membership.

Because I am a target of Chelios’ surveillance activities, I strongly recommend that the Board seek guidance from other counsel regarding the legal exposure that these activities may have created for the NHLPA.

October 31, 2009 – With Penny, and others resigning from the NHLPA, the four-man review committee installs General Counsel Mike Ouellet as acting Executive Director, and that Roland Lee has been named General Counsel to replace Ouellet until the executive board  made up of the 30 player reps can reconvene and name an interim executive director and interim general counsel. Almost immediately, there are questions as to whether the review committee has the rights within the NHLPA constitution to conduct such an action.

November 8, 2009NHLPA Interim Ombudsman “Buzz” Hargrove resigns, saying, “Under current circumstances, I can not perform duties of ombudsman.” There had been reports that Hargrove was going to be ousted, although Hargrove said, “I had no worry of being forced out.”  Still, Hargrove’s announcement might well be viewed as a preemptive strike. Hargrove said surveillance by the NHLPA’s review committee made it impossible to carry out duties outlined in NHLPA constitution.

That brings you up to date on the soap opera that is the NHLPA. If your head is swimming, imagine how the rank and file players feel. If there is a single name that runs through this saga, it is Chris Chelios. Whether the players find that he is the source of the problems, or simply a man attempting to get the ship righted, is the question.

One thing of importance… While 2011 seems far away, it isn’t when it comes to labor negotiations. With the NHLPA a rudderless, revolving door of a house that seems to be forever on fire, getting the NHLPA sorted out could have implications on the next CBA. What seems to be a near given is that this timeline of a chaotic nature seems far from over. After all, Hargrove will need replacing, and eventually, Ouellet will either be approved, or not, by the executive board. For those keeping track, there have been three executive directors of the NHLPA in four years. That does include interim executive directors in Penny, and Ouellet.

Stability? Think again.


Maury BrownMaury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown’s full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.

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