'Union' is still problematic for NHLPA
Five years after an ugly lockout, hockey players don't yet have their house in order
In the five years since the 2004-05 National Hockey League season was lost to a lockout over an inability to come to a collective bargaining agreement, NHL players have:
• fired the executive director who led them during the lockout.
• hired two new executive directors.
• and fired both of them.
So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the players are attempting to draft a new constitution for their union and search for yet another new executive director while they simultaneously try to figure out how their organization has been unraveling. And over all of that, the next CBA negotiation looms. The current six-year deal runs out after next season unless the players extend it to a seventh year, which is their option. (Given the state of the union, that's a likely scenario.)
They've made progress on the new constitution. But little has been accomplished in locating their next leader or learning the lessons from a review of the events and forces that contributed to the instability at the top of the union, despite a series of deadlines established by player committees that were intended to move the work along quickly.
The next step in the process of remaking the union will be an agents' meeting in Toronto on Thursday. The agenda includes a nearly two-hour presentation on a new constitution from Donald Fehr, who retired recently after more than a quarter century as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Fehr has been assisting the hockey players as a consultant.
Neither Fehr nor others involved in the rewriting of the constitution would discuss their efforts because of the sensitivity of the issues, but sources say a working document is near completion. In an attempt to avoid the fragmentation of authority that led to turmoil and the bizarre dismissal of Paul Kelly at a riotous, out-of-control early-morning meeting in Chicago in August, the drafters of the new constitution are using a structure adopted from the baseball players' union -- a model of labor governance that has produced some of the greatest gains for any union in the history of the American labor movement.
The new structure for the union, known as the baseball model, is expected to be ready for consideration by the players in a few weeks.
Kelly, a formal federal prosecutor in Boston who brought a remarkable record of achievement and integrity to a union that was struggling to survive, was caught in a storm of political and personal dynamics that led to his unexpected and stunning dismissal. Even players who led the movement to oust Kelly have been unwilling or unable to explain why they did it.
To try to determine what happened, the players agreed to form a "review committee" to conduct an investigation. But the committee has done little. Some players now are suggesting it would be better to look forward than back, and they've limited the committee to a budget of only $300,000. That isn't nearly enough to hire the lawyers and forensic experts necessary for a review of thousands of e-mails, documents and conversations that preceded the firing of Kelly.
The search for a new executive director, meanwhile, has been stalled by the restructuring of the union's system of governing itself.
According to one individual who requested anonymity because of his involvement in the deliberations, "It would be difficult for anyone to decide to seek the job if he does not know what his authority will be and what his responsibilities may be."
Several sources told ESPN.com that the players' search committee, despite a March deadline, now won't begin to interview candidates until after the completion of the season.
Persistent rumors have suggested that Fehr might consider taking the helm of the union himself in an effort to start the players on a path that could lead to a stronger union. When contacted by ESPN.com, Fehr declined the opportunity to discuss those rumors or the possibility that he might consider the position.
A handful of agents have indicated interest in the job, but some hockey insiders fear an agent would bring his own set of grudges and scars to the leadership of a group that is already entangled in a thicket of ego, perceived betrayals and revenge.
Although at this point there is no official list of candidates, one highly qualified possibility, David Feher, has emerged. A veteran of labor wars with both the NFL and the NBA, Feher supported his application to the NHLPA with a series of remarkable recommendations.
In a two-page, highly detailed letter, Billy Hunter, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, explains that Feher helped his union in its battles with NBA commissioner David Stern. Hunter's letter refers to Stern as the "teacher of [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman" and says Feher "has already gone through the wars with the owners, where the players were locked out and the owners were trying their best to divide us."
In a description that seems to apply specifically to the current plight of hockey players, Hunter's letter says Feher "is a fighter and a realist and does not pull his punches when they need to be thrown. He knows how to build for the future."
DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA, also supplied a detailed letter of support for Feher.
According to Smith's letter of recommendation, "[Feher's] passion for players, and protecting their rights, is unparalleled. He has this fight in his bones. He also has the skill to win for the players. Time and again, he has had the vision and analytical ability to see leverage the players can use against the owners, legal and non-legal, and he knows how to apply that leverage."
In another observation that is aimed directly at one of the difficulties facing of the NHLPA right now, Smith writes, "David understands the critical role of player unity and consensus in running a professional sports union."
It's been seven months since the hockey union's leadership reached the conclusion that firing Kelly was a solution to a problem. And it's been more than four and a half years since the players submitted to the forces of the owners' lockout and agreed to a salary cap. It's difficult to imagine how athletes who regularly seem ready and willing to drop their gloves and sticks to fight over a transitory transgression on the ice cannot seem to find a way to organize their fight for the bigger issues important to themselves and their families.
Shortly after they fired Kelly, most hockey players knew something needed to be done. So far, they have done nothing of significance. Maybe the agents' meeting in Toronto next week will be a step in the right direction.
Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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