Commentary

How ugly is this NHLPA drama? Read on

Updated: September 1, 2009, 12:29 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Imagine a group of cavemen sitting around a campfire roasting a mastodon.

Now, imagine some of those Neanderthals leaping up and grunting, "Fire bad … cooked meat bad," before dousing the flames and leading the rest into a dark, damp cave.

Now you have a sense of the shocking developments within the NHL Players' Association in the past 24 hours.

[+] EnlargePaul Kelly and Gary Bettman
Libor Fojtik/Getty ImagesPaul Kelly, right, was hired by the NHLPA in October 2007.

Less than two years into Paul Kelly's role as NHLPA executive director, a small but determined group of lawyers and former players toppled him from his post and once again left the players' union lacking in credibility and facing an uncertain future.

How ugly is this?

Well, Caesar got better treatment from Brutus and his buddies than Kelly received from some members of the NHLPA executive committee, comprised of the 30 player reps, who voted in the wee hours of Monday morning to go back to the drawing board and find another leader.

And so, a period that was supposed to be a fresh start for the oft-troubled union, a fresh start on a new relationship with the NHL, has been reduced to rubble against a backdrop of backroom politicking and personal agendas.

A glimpse at what we know at this point:

• Eric Lindros insisted he knew nothing of what was about to unfold during the union's meetings in Chicago on Sunday and Monday, but multiple sources told ESPN.com the former player was a driving force in ousting Kelly from his post.

•  Sources also told ESPN.com that Halifax labor lawyer Ron Pink, who ended up on the NHLPA's advisory board after he was a candidate for Kelly's job, was also involved in the move to depose Kelly. Pink initially did not return messages from ESPN.com; then, when reached early Monday morning on his cell phone, he said he was on the other line and promised to return the call. He did not.

• Multiple sources told us the NHLPA's rank and file, and at least some team representatives, were not informed of Pink's interest in the Kelly job when he was presented to them as a candidate for the advisory board.

• Lindros was a central figure in the search committee that produced Kelly as NHLPA executive director in the wake of the embarrassing Ted Saskin affair. Saskin was driven from the post after it was revealed he had spied on members by reading their e-mails.

• After Kelly was hired, Lindros stayed on as NHLPA ombudsman for a short time, but he and Kelly did not see eye to eye and Lindros resigned. Former Canadian Autoworkers head Buzz Hargrove replaced Lindros. How Hargrove, a throwback to the dark days of confrontational, sometimes violent labor disputes in Canada, was seen as a suitable personality for this job is mind-boggling.

The outcome of the weekend's events is all in keeping with what appears to be a dangerous return to the Stone Age of labor negotiations that should put fear into all the league's players and its fans.

"Scary days," one prominent player agent told ESPN.com Monday morning.

One former player told ESPN.com on Monday he had talked to some of the 30 player representatives who expressed surprise the vote had gone the way it did. He said some player reps expressed shock that there were enough votes to lead to Kelly's dismissal. But later in the day, Hargrove told ESPN.com the vote was overwhelming in favor of dismissal.

The actual reasons for Kelly's firing remain vague and Hargrove admitted there was no one specific reason for the dismissal. It is believed Kelly's transgressions include his treatment of staff members in Toronto, his perceived closeness to the media and a lack of fractiousness when it came to dealing with the NHL and its owners.

One former NHLPA executive member said if it's true one of the reasons Kelly was overthrown was the fact he wasn't confrontational enough with NHL executives, it's a bad sign for future negotiations. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," he said.

He said it's important for the league and players to have a close relationship given the nature of the current collective bargaining agreement, which sees the league and players share in hockey-related revenues. He warned that without such a relationship, there is a potential to return to the "tragic" days of the past when there were frequent labor interruptions.

Another former NHLPA executive member was livid, saying the timing of this leadership change was "terrible."

"We need to get behind Paul Kelly and let him do his job," he said.

If those behind the movement really cared about the future of the union "they'd let this pass." Further, he added, "if Eric Lindros really cared about the union, he'd let this go and get himself another job."

One area that also infuriated this former union executive member was the interviewing of office staff to see how Kelly treated them.

"Who cares," he said. "Do you think the president of Johnson & Johnson walks around worrying about hurt feelings?"

Many players, agents and former players contacted by ESPN.com expressed concern about changing leadership with a new collective bargaining agreement looming within the next couple of years.

One top player told ESPN.com that by the time the search committee gets around to finding a new executive director and gets up to speed, "he won't have time to get his pencil sharpened before we're in another lockout."

"It's the culture of paranoia," added a former player and former NHLPA executive committee member. "And what sign does this send to the league? Where's the stability at the union? It's a year or two away from needing to negotiate a new CBA."

What remains most perplexing about how all of this has unfolded is the seeming rush to judgment.

Why, for instance, didn't the player representatives opt to take the information provided to them in Chicago back to their teammates when training camp opens in two weeks? Isn't firing their executive director an important enough decision to want to make sure the constituency is on board?

Hargrove insisted that when the player representatives explain their decision to their teammates, they'll be on board. Of course, if Hargrove is wrong -- and given his lack of hockey experience it's not too much of a stretch to suggest he doesn't really know -- it will be too bad for both Kelly and the members of the NHLPA.

One player not on the executive committee told us he was surprised such a dramatic decision had been made.

"I've heard of a few minor things heading into [Sunday], but I didn't think this would be the result," he said, adding that he would be seeking more information about the decision-making process.

In the past, players have been criticized for not taking enough of an interest in their own union. Well, here's a chance to deconstruct the myth that the NHLPA is just a loose collection of self-centered millionaire athletes.

The players should be working in the coming hours to see that this decision is reversed or, at the very least, held off until they can sort through the lies, innuendo and gossip that permeate this Byzantine drama.

If there is reason for Kelly to be dismissed, then so be it. If not, then it behooves the players to roust out the group that led the charge for Kelly's dismissal so he can return to the business of keeping the game on the rails.

If not, good luck. Good luck to the NHLPA, which will get exactly what it deserves, a step back to the Stone Age. Good luck to the fans, who can expect only rancor and, at some point, another, potentially lethal, labor stoppage.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE