Jim Kelley
Thursday July 15th, 2010

After years of chaos and conspiracy straight from the marble halls of the Roman Empire, the Executive Committee of the National Hockey League Players Association has apparently endorsed a reworked constitution. As with most matters involving its internal workings, the NHLPA has issued no formal statement regarding its proposed new operating rules. Still, some points are leaking out.

It appears that the old document (we use the word "old" in a relative sense, given that the PA reworked its constitution only three years ago) was consigned to the shredder. The new one will return power to the office of the executive director. This will likely lead to a rubber stamp approval from the rank and file (assuming enough of them make the effort to vote). This is surely a good thing.

When you are dealing with the NHL, particularly Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy Bill Daly, it is wise to prepare for power plays of ruthless efficiency. The players learned that lesson the hard way the last time they were in contract negotiations with Bettman and company. Though they were warned repeatedly by former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow, the players caved like a South Florida sinkhole when the league brought pressure to bear. They then deposited Goodenow under their collective bus.

After Goodenow resigned in July 2005, the players fell to bickering among themselves, opening deep wounds that still haven't completely healed. They set about revising their constitution to purportedly give themselves more power, but in essence they only opened avenues for more bickering and the kind of behavior one usually reserves for a knife fight.

The "new old" constitution also made it possible for the PA's next leader, Ted Saskin, to run amok setting his salary and reading confidential e-mails (an act that eventually led to his ouster in 2007) while making it impossible for his replacement, Paul Kelly, to function with any kind of authority. That led to an unfathomable string of events: players with union connections conspiring to undermine Kelly, union lawyers gaming to get control, longtime union reps exiled, and former auto union boss Buzz Hargrove making an alleged power grab for the throne and replacing Eric Lindros as Ombudsman in March 2009. (Lindros was said to be leading the "get Kelly movement," which according to some was an egregious breach of his duties.) Hargrove quit eight months later after coming to "the conclusion that under the current circumstances at the NHLPA that I can not perform the duties of Ombudsman as outlined in the NHLPA constitution."

The players now claim they are moving forward even if their latest constitution appears to be a "back to the future" production. The union, or at least those who are charged with making the good-faith effort to fix it, wants a strong document that gives authority to the executive director. This is being done in a variety of ways, including abolishing a number of committees formed under the old document with the idea of keeping the director in check. There are reports that that the union's lead attorney will no longer be outside his control. That move is apparently designed to insure there will be no repeat of general counsel Ian Penny hacking away at Kelly to the point where Kelly was eliminated last September with Penny briefly taking over. (Penny stepped down in October while blaming Chris Chelios for creating a "poisonous office environment.")

In a quick aside, the Executive Committee this week addressed Kelly's ouster at a two-day meeting in Toronto and formally acknowledged that he was essentially railroaded out of office by treatment that was, in essence, unconscionable.

Charming stuff. But enough of the past.

All of the constitutional changes should enable the next executive director to go to the bargaining table with at least the appearance of the players being unified behind one leader who has the power to act on their behalf. That would be a major change from the last time around when divisions in the ranks led Bettman and Daly to realize that Goodenow didn't have the full support he needed to outlast the league's threats of a lengthy lockout. That realization helped Bettman dig in and bet that his hardline stance would lead to Goodenow's demise.

Bettman was right.

It's difficult to predict who the next NHLPA executive director will be. The committee members seem to want former Major League Baseball players union boss Donald Fehr, who has been acting as an unpaid advisor for nearly a year. Fehr is at least hinting at interest -- so much interest that critics of his role with hockey are pointing at the fact that he was a principal advisor on the new constitution with an eye on making certain that it's bulletproof regarding the needs of a new boss taking his charges into negotiations for a CBA that will replace the one that expires in two years. Fehr is also advising on the search for a new director, an odd role when one is also said to be on the short list of candidates for the job.

Fehr is 61 and has indicated that he has the drive for one more go-round with a sports entity. However, there is never a guarantee with this group and there are other candidates.

David Feher, a New York labor lawyer, is rumored to be in the mix as is Doug Allen, a former assistant executive director with the National Football League Players Association, and Richard Berthelesen, who is a general counsel for the NFLPA. If the players who were loyal to Goodenow had their way (and some of them hold strong within the ranks of the PA), he would be brought back. (Goodenow frequently consulted with Fehr when Fehr was the baseball union boss.)

Those who want to go outside the speculative list might center on attorney Richard Rodier, who gave the NHL one heck of a scare with a clever legal fight designed to push the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy court and into Hamilton, Ontario. Rodier is also an economist and quite possibly the most despised man in the NHL's New York offices after he cost the league millions to defend itself against his lawsuit that would have opened the Toronto market to a second team -- one owned by his benefactor, Jim Balsillie.

Given that Fehr isn't the long-term solution and Goodenow likely wouldn't come back even if asked, some long-range planning to go with short-term need is in order. It's a real possibility that Fehr will accept the role of negotiator for the next CBA while training his long-term replacement. That would give the PA an experienced hand to help rebuild its fractured membership, restore a workable constitution, and begin the necessary planning for what should be a very difficult negotiation with a league that likely will want to lower its hard-won salary cap by shrinking player salaries.

Just who might be at the table on the players' behalf remains to be seen, of course, but reworking the constitution and acknowledging failure in dealing with Paul Kelly are promising steps.

It's also nice to see that the knives are being sheathed.

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