Soap operas aren't just a dying breed on daytime television. They're coming to an end in junior hockey as well.
The self-proclaimed Canadian Hockey League Players' Association appears ready to close out its short but very entertaining run after a series of absurd plot twists that even the great Susan Lucci couldn't have sold.
A week after the group finally appeared to assert its legitimacy, first with the threat of a lawsuit against the Ontario Hockey League and then an actual suit against the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, it all unraveled over a whirlwind 48-hour period that saw (in something close to chronological order):
• The CHL confirm that it had launched a private investigation to discover the truth behind the identity of "union" spokesman Derek Clarke, a man no one had seen and few had talked to. (My own attempts to contact Clarke yielded a returned phone call that I missed and no response to my follow-ups.) TSN's David Naylor later reported that he'd dealt with two different CHLPA spokesmen, both claiming to be Derek Clarke.
• The CHL investigation conclude that Randy Gumbley, who had been convicted of swindling more than $100,000 from several junior hockey families back in 2009 and found guilty of fraud in the wake of a European hockey tour scam in 2011, was likely involved with the CHLPA after being identified by several WHL players as the man who had approached them with union information.
• Speculation swirl that both Gumbley and someone actually named Derek Clarke were addressing media queries as Derek Clarke.
• The Calgary Herald report that the Victory Square Law Office, the legal firm behind the group's bid to have the Alberta Labour Relations Board eliminate the waiting period for certification voting in the province, had informed the ALRB that it was withdrawing counsel from the CHLPA immediately. The group's Quebec-based counsel, Poudrier-Bradet, resigned the same day.
• CHLPA Executive Director Georges Laraque announce that he would resign if Clarke turned out to be Randy Gumbley, then later tell Yahoo's Sunaya Sapurji that Gumbley's brother Glenn, who looked very similar to Randy, worked for the union -- thus explaining the players' confusion.
• The CHLPA send out a press release stating that Randy Gumbley holds "no official position" within the "union." Later, Quebec broadcaster TVA said it has obtained CHLPA recruiting material that features Randy Gumbley's name.
• Confirmation that someone named "Glen Clarke" shared an email address and phone number with Derek Clarke.
• Glenn Gumbley reveal that he was a founder of the CHLPA, but wanted to keep his name out of the picture because of the toxicity of the family name. He later told the Toronto Star that the union concept emerged from a desire to avenge his brother, who he believed had been "railroaded" by Hockey Canada, and that he was now motivated "by the right reasons."
• Finally, late Thursday, came word that Laraque was resigning, but would stay on until a suitable replacement could be found.
Got that? All that was missing was a fan favorite returning from the dead and a near-fatal cougar attack.
Here's what it adds up to: If the union concept isn't dead, this version is certainly drawing its final breaths. Laraque says he wants to pass the cause on to an established professional union, but at this point it's hard to imagine the players throwing their lot in with any group that's trying to organize them.
Derek Clarke, the real one, will probably go back to his job as a sales rep for a high-tech company in Montreal, though you have to wonder how firm the ground will be under his feet there.
Glenn Gumbley doesn't share his brother's criminal record, but he'll be tarred with the same brush after outing himself as the organizer. Not just for the subterfuge and veil of secrecy that surrounded the "grassroots" group, but for its desire to tack a $1.50 tariff onto every CHL ticket -- a plan that failed the smell test in the first place and seems more nefarious now in context. At least Randy, whose real level of involvement remains to be seen, gets to pass on a little blame for the toxicity of the family name now.
Laraque said he'd be on hand in Cape Breton on Friday where the Screaming Eagles were set to vote on certification, but he has to know that's a wasted trip. It[s doubtful the balloting will even take place. If it does, it's hard to imagine any player voting to certify, although the expansion Sherbrooke Phoenix of the QMJHL became the first team to do so earlier this week. Guessing they're not feeling too proud of themselves today, but they're kids. They deserve sympathy, not ridicule, for being duped.
I'm not sure there should be any sympathetic figures on the "union" side, but I feel bad for Laraque. Here's a guy who has been associated with a variety of worthy causes ranging from animal rights to disaster relief in Haiti. He doesn't just write checks. He gets personally involved. I truly believe he came into this with a sincere desire to improve the lot of the CHL's 1,200-plus players.
But it was clear from interviews early on -- Laraque often gave answers that were vague at best, misinformed at worst -- that he was brought in as a name and face to generate a veneer of credibility for the group, rather than as a true executive director who would shape and lead the cause. His culpability lies in his failure to ask the right questions early on and his inability to suss out what was happening when the media repeatedly called the integrity of the venture into question.
Maybe he didn't know about the Gumbleys. If he did, it's easy to imagine the name not ringing a bell initially -- Randy Gumbley's past was hardly the stuff of national headlines before Wednesday. But at some point Laraque figured it out. And when he did, he either tried to cover it up or found he was powerless to affect change. Ultimately, he decided that falling on his sword was the only way to save some small amount of face.
My gut says he's not the bad guy here, but he aided and abetted. Sticking around might seem noble, but it's not. He should step down immediately, come clean and let the remnants of the group deal with the mess they created.
Meanwhile, you can forgive the folks associated with the CHL if they take a few "I Told You So" victory laps, but they shouldn't get too smug about vanquishing this less-than-formidable foe.
If nothing else, the CHLPA group succeeded in exposing a gaping flaw in the CHL's education plan, a flaw that's not going away even if there aren't multiple Derek Clarkes to harp on it.
They have a real chance here to not just make things right, but to come off brilliantly by extending the window that a graduated player has to claim the league's education package from the current 18 months to, say, four years.
Allowing a player ample time to pursue his pro ambitions and still have the educational safety net available if/when that road ends isn't just a smart move that should make the CHL an even more compelling option for young players who are choosing how to pursue their hockey dreams.
It's the right thing to do.
The Detroit Red Wings won't rebuild their crumbling empire with a single acquisition, but they may have bought something more than a bucket of spackle when they signed Swiss free agent Damien Brunner. The 26-year-old winger, who inked a one-year, two-way deal over the summer, is leading the Swiss league with 26 points in 15 games. Doesn't hurt that he's skating on a line with Henrik Zetterberg, who has 11 points, including seven goals, in five games since joining EV Zug, but his offense isn't based solely on playing with his likely center in Detroit.
"He's not real big but he's really quick," a scout said, before noting that Brunner had led the Swiss league in scoring in 2011-12. "He has a great shot and he's willing to fire from just about anywhere. Detroit has all those playmakers. He's the triggerman they need." It also helps that he's a right-handed shot, something that was absent from Detroit's top-six last season.
• It won't dog him the way a NSFW-due-to-cussin' Swedish Idolaudition video haunts Maple Leafs prospect Mark Owuya, but this bedroom video shot by a 14-year-old Hunter Shinkaruk has provided his opponents with plenty of chirp material. Shinkaruk, now 17 and a top-10 prospect for the next NHL draft, can always flash the ultimate shut-up card. One of the Western League's top scorers with the Medicine Hat Tigers, he scored three times and added six assists in a pair of wins last weekend, then tallied twice in Thursday's 5-1 win over Vancouver. "Great hands and high-end vision," a scout told me prior to this season. "He can be a gamebreaker." And as the video attests, he's willing to do his homework.
• Minnesota Wild prospect Mikael Granlund, arguably the best player not in the NHL last season, was named AHL Rookie of the Month for October. The smallish center had 10 points in seven games, highlighted by a four-point night against the Texas Stars, and was a plus-5 for the Houston Aeros. The Wild have the 2010 first-rounder penciled into their second line when -- okay, if -- NHL play resumes. He could be joined up north by fellow rookie Charlie Coyle, a 2009 San Jose first-rounder who came over as part of the Brent Burns trade. The big winger has five goals, tops on the Aeros. He's a load down low, an element that was sorely missing in a Minnesota offense that averaged a league-worst 2.02 goals per game last season.
• Though any delay in the expected cancellation of the Winter Classic was seen as a light in the lockout tunnel, it's tough to be optimistic about a resolution in the near future with another wave of players signing overseas. Among the latest to dig out their passports: Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown (Zurich), Phoenix enforcer Paul Bissonnette (Cardiff), unsigned New York Rangers defender Michael Del Zotto (Rapperswil-Jona) and Boston Bruins center Chris Kelly (Swiss second division club HC Red Ice, where he replaces Nashville's Patric Hornqvist who left the team after a month).
• An OHL source confirmed that the league's outdoor double-header scheduled for Dec.29 at Detroit's Comerica Park as part of the Winter Classic festivities would be canceled if the big game at the Big House is axed by the NHL.