Players feel they've got their union back

Updated: March 16, 2007, 2:00 PM ET
ESPN.com

AROUND THE RINK

A couple of days before the NHL Players' Association's fateful vote to suspend executive director Ted Saskin with pay, ESPN.com asked one player rep about allegations Saskin had been involved in tampering with players' e-mails.

The rep responded with a vacant look and then muttered that he'd heard rumors about it some months ago. Then, he admitted he was just a hockey player and all of this investigation stuff was just a bit much.

There's no need to identify the player or the team, but it serves to reinforce the idea that of the more than 700 members of the players' union, there are many who are ill-informed about what is a multimillion-dollar business.

It goes a long way to explaining why players like Mathieu Schneider, Chris Chelios and Dwayne Roloson were for months considered pests at best and pariahs at worst by many of their colleagues in the union as they pressed for an investigation into how Saskin was hired and how he was conducting business.

Although it took a lot of effort and more than a little heartache, those players might now go down as the most important members in the history of the union and now represent a significant majority of players.

With Saskin and senior director Ken Kim on paid leaves in anticipation of their dismissal, Schneider hopes the level of both interest in the union's machinery and education about the group's machinations will rise.

Once Saskin took over shortly after the end of the lockout in the summer of 2005, Schneider said there was a "huge conflict of interest" regarding information posted on the players' Web site, one of the main tools for staying informed on association matters.

"Things weren't getting posted," he said in an interview this week. "We had to call player reps one by one. I can say it was fought every step of the way."

Schneider doesn't spare the players themselves from blame in what some have described as an embarrassing situation. "I think players will pay more attention to [the union] now," Schneider said. "Before the lockout, guys just got fat and lazy. At the end of the day, that's what cost of us a year of hockey."

The 37-year-old New York native recalls becoming a player rep when he was playing for Montreal, the team that drafted him in 1987. He got involved because veteran Ryan Walter took him under his wing and explained the role of being a player rep.

"More of that needs to happen," Schneider said.

The relationship between the union and the owners always has been a delicate one, but with the current collective-bargaining agreement essentially formalizing a partnership that should have been entrenched from the beginning, the need for a strong union is crucial to making that partnership work.

And the better that partnership works, the better the product for the fan. At least, that's the theory.

"Being a player rep is probably a bigger role now than in the past because of the revenue sharing," Schneider said.

Still, he said he was pleased to see that 28 of 30 teams voted for the independent investigation into Saskin's hiring and other union matters, and Schneider believes it's a crucial first step back to respectability.

"I think it's the first time since the Bob Goodenow hiring [in 1992] players have a sense that we're in control of our own union right now," Schneider said. "We should be proud of where we're at."

E.J. & BARRY
Hradek and Melrose discuss this week's hot hockey topics.
SLAP SHOTS
WHO'LL BE IN GOAL?
For many teams already in a playoff position, the final weeks of the regular season are about getting healthy and trying to find the right combinations for the postseason. For a surprising number of teams, this process also involves trying to figure out who their No. 1 goalie will be.

Given the success teams like Anaheim and Cup winner Carolina had in during last spring's playoffs, the trend of swapping goalies could happen again this postseason. In Minnesota, Nashville, San Jose, Tampa Bay and perhaps Dallas and Pittsburgh, the No. 1 netminder might not be known until the final days of the regular season. And even then, given these teams' goaltending depth, coaches can be expected to be less patient if their starters falter.

Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire has been non-committal in discussing when presumed starter Manny Fernandez might see action again given the stellar play of Niklas Backstrom and rookie backup Josh Harding. Essentially, he's said he doesn't know, hardly a ringing endorsement for the Fernandez camp.

In Nashville, Chris Mason was terrific when Tomas Vokoun was out with a broken thumb and arguably has been better since Vokoun's return in early January. Coach Barry Trotz likewise has been non-committal about who might start in the playoffs, suggesting Vokoun will have to play better to earn the start. Even in Dallas, where Marty Turco has all-world credentials, there remain questions about his playoff readiness given the Stars have just one playoff series victory in the past three postseasons. The fact Mike Smith has played eight times in just over a month suggests he's earned at least some consideration from coach Dave Tippett. Even if Turco is, as expected, the playoff starter, expect him to be on a short leash.
-- S.B.

FORWARD THINKING
Games on our radar the next few days:

Kovalev • Saturday, Maple Leafs at Canadiens, 7 p.m. ET: These two historic rivals are on the road Friday in Washington and Pittsburgh, respectively, before this crucial East showdown. As of Friday morning, the Leafs were ninth in the jam-packed race, a point behind No. 8 Carolina with two games in hand. The Habs were one point in arrears of the Leafs and two out of the last spot. While the Leafs are getting healthy bodies back in their lineup, the Habs continue to stumble along in a state of almost perpetual crisis. This week, Alexei Kovalev announced he might be suffering from vertigo and his availability is unlikely.

Sakic • Sunday, Sharks at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET: Recent stumbles by Calgary (one win in their last five games) and a determined Avalanche squad (6-0-1 in their last seven games) have made for a little drama down the stretch in the West. The Sharks were 5-0-1 in their last six heading into weekend play and will provide a stern test. Avs rookie Paul Stastny has points in 19 straight games, an NHL record for first-year players, and is making a case as a Calder Trophy candidate.
Complete NHL schedule