- Damien Cox, NHL
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Fourteen months ago, the union representing NHL players was regarded as a significant and powerful force in the industry, having outpointed the league's owners at virtually every turn over the previous decade.
They weren't as militant as baseball players, but these hockey boys had substantial muscle in both the corners and the boardroom.
Today, the same union, the NHL Players Association, lies in tatters, having not only had its collective lunch handed to it by the owners after a lockout that destroyed the entire 2004-05 season, but now having fallen into an ugly, destructive internal fight that appears likely to continue for months.
It's a story that has received far more attention in Canada than the U.S., at least partly because the union is based in Toronto, and also simply because fans in general are sick of NHL politics and infighting.
That said, the battle has spilled over into the laps of U.S. regulatory bodies, with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board and U.S. Department of Labor having already received briefs from union members alleging wrongdoing by the association's senior leadership.
Already, the union appears even more fractured than it became in the early 1990s, when former boss Alan Eagleson was forced aside amidst allegations of misusing union funds, and ultimately convicted in a U.S. court and sent to jail.
"Things are operating the same as they did then, under a shroud of secrecy," former NHLer Steve Larmer told The Toronto Star.
Larmer, a standout NHLer in his day, caused shock waves 10 days ago when he quit as the union's head of player relations, voicing his concerns in a controversial press release.
"This organization has taken a giant step backwards, back to the days of Eagleson, where a select few made decisions for the group," Larmer said in the release.
Ah yes, Eagleson.
Even the name opens old wounds and touches a sensitive nerve for NHL players, with the membership having been viewed as too docile and easily manipulated from the time Eagleson founded the union in 1967 until his ouster in the early 1990s.
On one side of this current fight is union president Trevor Linden and new executive director Ted Saskin, hired to take over for Bob Goodenow in July after, depending on who's telling the story, Goodenow either quit or was unceremoniously fired after making NHL players rich beyond their wildest dreams in the 1990s.
On the other side is a splinter group of about 100 former NHLers and current players, including prominent stars such as Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch and Eric Lindros, all of whom angrily contend Saskin illegally took control in the wake of the lockout and has been skirting the union's own constitution to galvanize his position and retain his $2.1 million annual salary.
Without question, this ugly squabble is the outgrowth of the collective bargaining process that left many players angry with union concessions and upset that they had not been fully informed throughout the talks.
Saskin, in fact, has charged that the dissident players aren't really against him at all, but are essentially still fighting the CBA war and upset with the fact the union leadership submitted to a $39 million salary cap.
"These guys didn't want to negotiate what we negotiated," Saskin told Hockey Night in Canada.
"This is supposed to be a democratic union and it's become communist," Minnesota goalie Dwayne Roloson told The Canadian Press.
Interestingly, a leading voice on the dissident side is Trent Klatt, who retired as a player after the lockout but has become one of Saskin's most aggressive critics, setting up a Web site to air his views and complaints. He calls it the "homepage of the quest for NHLPA democracy."
"Ted Saskin is trying to save a job," Klatt wrote. "Us players are trying to save a union."
Atlanta center Bobby Holik said the fight revolves around finding how the union switched from a no-cap position to accepting a cap, and how Saskin seized power without an open vote among the union's membership.
"We want answers as to what happened and all we get are the same tired clichés from the [union]," Holik told The New York Post. "We can't find out what happened last summer. How and when did the agenda change without the huge majority of us even knowing about it until it was too late to do anything?
"How did a small group take control without any notification to the membership?"
Saskin, formerly Goodenow's right-hand man, essentially took over the collective bargaining negotiations with the league in the spring of 2004, finally hammering out a deal with Bill Daly, now the NHL's deputy commissioner.
In this fight with the dissidents, however, Saskin has consistently erred in his strategy at quelling the uprising, attempting to either ignore or outflank his tormentors rather than give the players access to key union information. Indeed, many believe that had he and Linden simply insisted that all union bylaws be followed to the letter months ago, the Toronto lawyer would have easily been chosen to lead the union.
They maintain that had Saskin temporarily stepped aside and allowed the union to conduct a search for candidates, he would have ended up with the job anyway.
Saskin's latest attempt to defuse the issue came last week, when he released the results of a secret team-by-team vote ordered Sept. 12 that apparently showed 85 percent support for Saskin as executive director. That process was spawned by a controversial, late-night August conference call in which player reps and members of the executive committee voted 31-6 to install Saskin in his new job.
"At a certain point in time, we have to move on with our business, which is what we're going to do now," Saskin said.
But several teams have refused to even vote in the latest "election," arguing that the entire process contravenes NHLPA bylaws. As well, the voting procedure was supposed to be open until Dec. 16, but Saskin opted to reveal the results as soon as accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers revealed he had a majority of teams in his favor.
Saskin has refused to say how many teams have so far declined to vote. Detroit, Toronto and the New York Islanders are believed to be among the strongest opponents of the embattled NHLPA chief.
"This entire secret ballot vote was a joke and the Detroit Red Wings will not vote and validate Saskin's phony secret ballot election," Chelios said. "If our team were to vote, the vote would be no. This secret ballot is another example of Ted Saskin manipulating the process for his own personal gain."
Saskin's salary, which is double that of Major League Baseball union head Donald Fehr, has become a flashpoint in the dispute, with dissidents arguing that Linden and other members of the executive committee simply accepted Saskin's information on what he should receive in compensation.
"I think, to most people, it just looks like a cash grab where [Saskin] tried to chew off too much," Minnesota defenseman Willie Mitchell said.
At the center of the dispute is Linden, still weary from hammering out a new CBA last summer. Once highly respected by most union members, Linden has increasingly seen his presidency of the union compromised by his support of Saskin.
The Vancouver forward said he was "insulted" by Larmer's public letter and believed the secret vote should end the mess.
"We rounded up the votes and it's kind of time to move on with things," Linden said. "Hopefully we can work with those who have issues and try to make things right to their minds."
"Those guys wanted a secret ballot and we've done that," Boughner told The Globe and Mail. "What else do they want?"
Recently, prominent agent Ritch Winter, who led the fight against Eagleson more than a decade ago, became the first agent to publicly support the dissidents.
"When [agent] Ron Salcer and I first raised concerns about Eagleson, other agents were adamant that we were misfits and said Alan did a great job with international hockey," said Winter, who represents Dominik Hasek and a host of other prominent NHLers.
"But my feeling is that there's just as much reason to be concerned about the union now as there was under Eagleson."
Silent throughout this process as been Goodenow, leading some to wonder whether, after taking a back seat to Saskin during the CBA talks, the former union boss is orchestrating some of the fight against his successor.
The politics are intriguing and the ongoing squabble is revealing about the damage to the union psyche caused by the lockout and resulting CBA.
But at a time when the NHL appears to have successfully wobbled back on its feet and developed a new, exciting style of play, the union's civil war undermines the dream of fans, players and owners to put the embarrassing, destructive and precedent-setting lockout far in the rearview mirror.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.