Commentary

Players' union's bigger issue? A lack of interest

Updated: October 17, 2007, 3:04 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Twice betrayed by their union leader in the past 20 years, it's an open question whether NHL players can ever trust again.

More important, however, may be whether they can learn to care again.

As the post-lockout poison continues to spin new webs of alleged deceit and animosity -- the latest has former NHL Players' Association executive director Ted Saskin playing e-mail footsie with league deputy commissioner Bill Daly and Chris Chelios picking a fight with one of the game's most prominent player agents -- the degree to which players must feel completely disaffected with their once powerful union is significant, and possibly growing.

Chris Chelios
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRed Wings defenseman Chris Chelios is a vocal and active member of the union, but what about other players?

Partly, it's about losing.

These players, at least from their perspective, were pancaked by the league's owners in the negotiations that ultimately put the league back in business after the 2004-05 lockout. The players turned on their own leadership and were forced to accept a hard salary cap after months of vowing never to do so.

To many, that's a humiliating memory, and nobody wants to be associated with a loser. But in the wake of that lockout and through the ability of Saskin to steamroll his way to power and ignore the union's constitution without any significant opposition in the initial stages, it also became evident only a small number of players cared enough to really pay attention and participate.

In that way, not much has changed.

There are too many players out there who simply want nothing to do with their own union anymore, enough that it seems a major stretch to believe the players will risk having to go on strike by reopening the current collective-bargaining agreement in 23 months rather than waiting until it dies a natural death in September 2011.

Even now, it's difficult to gauge how many players are really plugged in to the hiring of a new executive director. Massachusetts attorney Paul Kelly, the man who once helped prosecute former NHLPA head Alan Eagleson, has been recommended for the job by a five-man search committee.

A secret ballot has been sent out to the league's 30 player representatives, who are to consult with their teammates and report back with a vote by the end of Wednesday. When Saskin got the job, many players were later dismayed to learn he was making $2 million a year, more than union executives in other sports with more experience are paid.

This time, Kelly's proposed pay package is being circulated along with other details of his job for the player rep vote, and it's apparently for the same $2 million per year. Kelly's credentials seem strong. But players, if they're really plugged in, will surely want hard answers as to why they're getting another high-powered lawyer to run the association and why the salary is again so considerable.

Or, which seems just as likely, they'll just say, "Whatever. As long as he stays out of my face."

And, one suspects, out of their e-mail baskets. That, ultimately, is what got Saskin fired, and lately the e-mail saga has taken a new twist, with e-mails surfacing that appear to detail the surprisingly cozy relationship between Saskin and top league officials. In particular, The Toronto Star reported Daly forwarded e-mails to Saskin, identifying Chelios and others as the leaders of an internal uprising against Saskin. In essence, it was as if the league was so pleased with Saskin's ascension to the top union job, it was determined to help him in his fight against dissident elements.

"Sick and pathetic" is how Chelios termed the relationship between Saskin and the league. The combative veteran blueliner has also taken dead aim at powerful player agent Don Meehan for similar reasons.

"In my opinion, Donny Meehan played a role in undermining our union," said Chelios, suggesting Meehan was too helpful to Saskin in his brief reign.

Chelios, who locked horns with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the first NHL lockout back in 1994 by suggesting Bettman should watch out for his family's welfare during the work stoppage, was clearly identified as an enemy of the state by both the league and the union.

Before a meeting in Russia in 2006, Saskin e-mailed Bettman, stating, "Looks like Bill [Daly] is getting the Moscow trip in September. I may send Chelios."

Bettman responded with, "With a one-way ticket?"

Years ago, it was Eagleson who was accused of being too chummy with NHL owners like the late Bill Wirtz and then-NHL president John Ziegler. After more than a decade of rising player salaries and power under union chief Bob Goodenow, it seems unthinkable, really, that Saskin is facing similar conflict-of-interest allegations.

The result may be that Kelly becomes the same kind of strident, militant union boss that Goodenow was, which would mean that by overplaying its hand in trying to influence union affairs, the league has once again created its own problem by breeding a new atmosphere of confrontation with players. To be sure, many players believe the league's claim to have established a "partnership" with the union has turned out to be an empty promise, with the league cocky and arrogant as it wields new power over a union stricken with internal problems.

If the players were to reopen the CBA in September 2009, and if that led to another work stoppage, it might well be far more disastrous for the industry than the last lockout.

Chelios has called the deal "the worst collective-bargaining agreement" in pro sports, and certain elements have made life more uncomfortable for expensive veterans and players caught between the minors and NHL than before.

Still, the hard cap has gone up every year, the average salary is about what it was before the lockout and last summer saw a number of players sign enormous free-agent packages that included salaries of $10 million per season.

So how bad is life as an NHL player, exactly, compared to the good old days?

While players might complain about the salary cap, there are teams that contend that at over $50 million per season the cap is still far too high and forces clubs to spend more than their individual revenues can handle, even with leaguewide revenue sharing.

So how much sense would there be for the players to start spoiling for a new fight if the business is wobbly?

If the NHLPA does head off in a radical new direction, however, it can't just be about Kelly or the most hard-line members of the players' union like Chelios, Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson and the currently unemployed Eric Lindros.

The 700-strong membership has to be widely engaged and supportive of Kelly in the same way it once unquestioningly followed Goodenow. Having managed to smash the union's solidarity and destroy the generalship of an NHLPA boss it hated, the league will certainly believe it can do the same if another big fight is in the offing.

And you just have to wonder whether the players will ever trust their leadership like that again. Unions that get broken are awfully hard to put back together.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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