Jim Kelley
Thursday August 12th, 2010

If I were a member of the search committee charged with finding an executive director for the National Hockey League Players Association, I would be afraid to open my e-mail in-box. Hockey players are blunt and the words attached to messages from, say, Marc Savard, Roberto Luongo, Chris Pronger, Marian Hossa and others are likely to read something like this:

Hey (name here),

You lazy SOB, get your good-for-nothing self off the golf course and your head out of your arse. (Name of NHL Commissioner, lawyer, administrator or arbitrator here) just got the okay to put his hand in my pocket and "review" my already reviewed and signed contract, and you're letting them get away with it?

Bad enough you Bozos were asleep at the switch and let Richard Bloch back in as an arbitrator, but then you go and lose what should have been an open and shut case regarding the cash in Kovy Kovalchuk's change cup, and now we're all subject to an "investigation" of deals that have been signed, sealed and approved by the league itself. This would never have happened if you guys hadn't sacked Bob Goodenow, let alone stopped listening to him.

Find a replacement for him and/or Ted Saskin and/or Paul Kelly. I don't care if it's Donald Fehr, Cape Fear, Fearless Taylor Swift or whatever her name is, but somebody has to stand up to these guys before they take us for whatever we have left. It's up to you guys to find him: Yesterday.

Your union brother,

(name here)

A little harsh, sure, and maybe even a bit of a stretch, but I've never seen the gap so clearly defined between what the NHLPA is and what it used to be.

In the recent ruling by Bloch (an arbitrator the NHLPA thought it had kicked to the curb back in 2005 because of his perceived NHL bias), the league won a decision that seemingly defies legal logic. Bloch declared that Ilya Kovalchuk, his agent and the New Jersey Devils didn't violate a single aspect of the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, but then he turned around and said that even so, the terms of Kovalchuk's new contract were clearly "intended" to circumvent the provisions of the CBA and therefore the proposed $102 million, 17-year deal was invalid.

Every protest the NHLPA made simply didn't matter. But Bloch didn't stop there. In ruling against the PA, Bloch went on to hint that the league had every right to disallow the contract and was now investigating others that it had already approved and registered. Hence, the deals of Pronger, Savard, and Luongo -- all of which are set to take effect come October -- as well as the one signed by Hossa more than a year ago are being reviewed with an eye (perhaps) toward canceling them.

And to this the NHLPA, still without an executive director, says only that it is: "disappointed."

Why not just kneel before Commissioner Gary Bettman and say: "Please, sir, may I have some more?"

In fairness to the PA, and especially advisor Donald Fehr, the reaction behind closed doors is likely much stronger. The problem is that no one has the authority to say so and, as a result, Bettman has now become King of Hockey. Even when he makes a mistake -- voicing disapproval of contracts seemingly modeled to avoid unwieldy salary cap hits, but still approving and registering them -- Bettman finds a way to get a reversal in his favor AND have the arbitrator seemingly certify that he can now disallow those deals.

If Goodenow were dead, he would no doubt be spinning in his grave. The players have no real voice now and Bettman is taking unfettered advantage of it. And who can blame him? Bettman drew a line in some very shifting sand and won.

This is no knock on Fehr, who has no official powers with the NHLPA beyond advising in a number of fields. He did not represent the PA at the arbitration hearing and though it's not known for certain if he had a hand in selecting its lawyer, even if he did, it would not have been in an official capacity because he has none. That gap has led the PA to this problem:

If Kovalchuk's defeat were the only fallout of the decision, it would be a simple "so what else is new?" for the PA. But the door has now been swung open to include retroactive powers for the commissioner, powers that did not seem to be included in the original CBA that he can now use to not only direct contracts more to his liking in the future, but delve into ones that have already been written, registered and, in some cases, executed.

That's a stunning amount of power and it certainly must strike fear into not only the hearts and wallets of Pronger, Luongo and Savard, but Hossa, Vinny Lecavalier, Daniel Briere, Rick DiPietro, Henrik Zetterberg and others. And one certainly can't help but imagine that if there were a power in the NHLPA Executive Director's chair, there would be an attempt to get this particular ruling overturned in a court of law.

That process, though seldom used, does exist. The Devils used the court system, rather than an arbitrator, to undo the NHL's one-game suspension of then-coach Jim Schoenfeld after his verbal and alleged physical assault on referee Don Koharski during the 1988 playoffs. The Devils prevailed.

Sadly for the NHLPA, their trips to court have usually dealt with problems within their own organization (see the Ted Saskin era as example No. 1) than with the NHL. That's enough to embolden Bettman to test the union some two years before it is due back at the negotiating table for yet another round of CBA talks.

It remains to be seen if Bettman has pushed too hard. Seeing Kovalchuk not get his money while other members have valid contracts reviewed and perhaps canceled, can be a huge motivating factor for the players. But if Bettman reads his cards correctly, he has very little to fear. His most notable adversary -- Goodenow -- was vanquished some five years ago and the PA has yet to put anyone of substance or duration in his place. Might as well get while the getting is good and Bettman has done exactly that.

Even e-mails to the selection committee can't change it.

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