There's a chill in the air, the players are informally hitting the ice, the magazine racks are filling up with preview guides. If hockey isn't back, it's at least visible on the horizon, and for that we can all be thankful.
Yet the events of the last week have undercut those Marky Mark-level good vibrations with a sad trombone of reality: We should enjoy this while we can, because there's a growing chance that the work could stop again when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and its players comes to an end.
The firing of NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly has ushered in an apocalyptic tone in the media coverage and in comments from sources, as a players association in chaos faces what should be a vicious labor negotiation in two or three years:
Scott Burnside, ESPN: "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."
Ken Campbell, The Hockey News: "At the very least, it will change the relationship between the league and the players. At the very worst, it could mean we get to go another year without hockey in 2012."
Tim Sassone, Chicago Daily Herald: "The only thing fans should care about is both the union and league start preparing soon for negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement following the 2010-11 season. There cannot be a single day of a work stoppage, not after debacle of the missed season in 2004-05."
Sphincter-tightening rhetoric aside, there's a ton of salacious news breaking about why Kelly was dismissed and what the move means for the NHLPA. But first, reading the tea leaves on this matter and the general course for the NHL, what's your take?
Now ... was Paul Kelly canned for being a little too nosy?
That's what Tim Wharnsby of the Globe & Mail reported today in a bombshell article, that "one of the prime reasons" Kelly was fired was because "he was allegedly caught reading a transcript from a confidential meeting between the union's advisory board and 30-member player executive last June."
The players were burned by the previous executive director Ted Saskin, who was fired after allegations that he monitored players' e-mails for personal gain. So after learning about Kelly's actions, mixed in with other concerns, they felt they could no longer trust him after he read the minutes of the private session.
When an executive board member was contacted yesterday to confirm the private session was part of the reason for Kelly's dismissal, the phone line went silent. He then said, "The players have agreed not to say anything." The player was given a chance to refute the story and did not deny the allegations.
One source said Hargrove, who gave his presentation between 1:00-3:00 a.m. ET Monday, showed player reps a series of e-mails Kelly exchanged with an NHLPA employee in which Kelly asked the employee to access sealed transcripts from the '09 NHLPA Players Meeting in Las Vegas. The minutes Kelly wanted access to concerned a meeting of the NHLPA Advisory Board in June in which a four-member panel of player representatives was appointed to investigate concerns about how the NHLPA office was being run
This isn't the first example of intrusion leaked about Kelly after his firing. James Murphy of NESN broke this earlier in the week about Kelly, interim director Ian Penny and Eric Lindros(notes):
According to sources, part of this group's desire to get rid of Kelly also stemmed from Kelly ordering an internal audit (by a top former FBI forensic accountant) of the players' association's expenses during the previous three years before he took over. That audit was still ongoing prior to Kelly's dismissal. Sources claim that through the audit, Kelly discovered that then-interim leaders Penny and Lindros were spending millions of dollars of the union's money. Lindros ended up resigning, but word is, that move fueled this attack on Kelly, and Lindros was very much involved.
Chris Chelios(notes) said the players would understand when the details emerged. Is this what he was talking about?
So there's enough paranoia in the NHLPA for a trilogy of David Fincher films. Combine that with the widespread belief that the players thought Kelly was "too cozy" with Gary Bettman and the NHL, and you've got your motivations.
Well, at least the motivations for the players that were actually informed this was happening. This firing was so hasty and in the dead of night, it's a miracle the Blackhawks weren't involved.
What does this turmoil mean for the players? Some really, really bad PR. George James Malik of Snapshots, an avowed union supporter, blasted the NHLPA this week:
Fans believed Bettman and the BoG in 1995, fans believed Bettman and the BoG in 2005, and whatever lies the NHL makes up will probably be bought during the 2011-2012 season, or the lack thereof. And when the Florida Panthers sign a third-line player to a 5-year, $50 million contract, the lockout clock might as well start ticking again.
The NHLPA has effectively neutered itself with little to no explanation as to why they've chosen to rebuild from scratch for the third time in four years. Between the CBA war on the horizon and they'll pay Kelly $2 million a season to go away (and still have some of Ted Saskin's identical 5-year, $10 million contract on the books), they'd better have a good explanation for their own members who stand to lose any hopes of influencing the governance of the game, playing in the 2011-2012 season, and the fans who are tired of witnessing self-immolation as a business strategy screwing them out of paying good money to watch NHL hockey.
The pettiness, the backroom brawling, the gossipy nature of the NHLPA has finally led some very smart hockey people to contend that it's actually time for the PA to just dissolve, blow out, turn into something that isn't so cuckolded by the NHL. It's how Eric Duhatschek of the Globe & Mail felt in a terrific column; it's how blogger Tom Benjamin feels as well:
Why does this organization exist? How many players would be better off if the NHLPA folded? Why do they want to be associated with what more than one pundit has declared to be a laughingstock? Who can blame any player who chooses apathy? We're going to keep seeing NHLPA car wrecks like this one because the players are apathetic, and because the union is weak, fractious and inherently unstable.
If there's a silver lining to this mess, it's that the majority players actually can come together and agree on something: They don't want another work stoppage. From Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated:
But before they make their selection, it might behoove them to dig into their own recent history. Goodenow ultimately failed as the union's leader because he couldn't convince the rank and file that they needed to hold out for two seasons to wear down the owners. After losing that 2004-05 battle, and after seeing the number of players who never made it back after the formal end of hostilities, is there any reason to believe they have the stomach for another winter spent puttering around the house?
The next CBA negotiation will happen at either the end of 2010-11 or, if the NHLPA decides to extend the current one, 2011-12. There are vital issues on the table, from long-term contracts to international play to escrow. The players' apathy for a work stoppage isn't surprising; their apathy for all things union-related is apparently what got Kelly canned in a quick-triggered power play.
It's also their apathy that has the NHL scratching at the walls, ready to open up the CBA and correct the few mistakes it made in the last negotiation. It'll be nasty, ugly and unpleasant.
For the fans, that is.