I've read a little bit about the dismissal of Players' Union chief Paul Kelly over the weekend, and despite the post hot-stove signings/pre training camp period, this story may possibly be the longer-term issue that hovers over the league, long-term shady contracts and "Who'll Win the Cup this Year?" rhetoric aside. Some novice musings follow after the jump.
The reasons behind his dismissal remain vague, though a common complaint about Kelly's role as NHLPA head was that he appeared to be "too close" to Gary Bettman for the Union's comfort. Whether or not that's true, Kelly stated that in the past he wanted to "strike the balance between working together in a professional, constructive manner and digging in to represent our respective sides," and getting Bettman to appear at a union meeting in June (his first appearance at a union meeting since his began as Der Komissar) was significant, regardless of any presumptions or opinions about Bettman.
But if this perceived coziness with Bettman served as a source of discomfort by the players, then it would seem to be a myopic view of the landscape. Consider that, in the 40-plus year history of the union, there have been four Executive Directors, including Kelly. The previous three have included an embezzler, a guy who endured three labor disputes in 15 years on his watch (which some might say the sport is still trying to recover from) and a guy who spied on his members. So the problem with Kelly is that he sat with Gary Bettman? Why'd they hire this flunkie in the first place?
Well, it was at the recommendation of a search committee, of which one of the members included Eric Lindros. Lindros was appointed as NHL ombudsman after his retirement, and left the position in February, but not before writing a letter that not only made public his conflict with Kelly, but seemed to salt the earth behind him as he walked out of the Union offices. But he doesn't appear to be alone in this.
The man who was deemed fit to take over the role as ombudsman was a man named Buzz Hargrove. Hargrove is a former auto union head who at superficial glance seems to get not a lot of love in Canada, and might have a proclivity to say stupid things in order to preserve his self-interests. He also presented to the union board issues that served as cause for Kelly's dismissal. These issues were voted on by the executive board, without inputsfrom the players that it serves.
You also have the new interim director of the Union, General Counsel Ian Penny, whose GC contract was renewed apparently without Kelly's knowledge, and who might be serving at the puppet while Hargrove pulls the strings. Penny and Lindros are also apparently learning the ways of Eagleson, if the implications in this James Murphy article (via Mirtle) bear any fruit.
So where does this leave the players for which the union reps and executive board are supposed to serve? Well they're out in the wind, though to be fair this isolation is not completely of their own doing. At the Bettman appearance in June, a little over 100 of the union's 700-plus strong force showed up to listen to the commissioner (much to board member Chris Chelios' chagrin), and I'd presume that Shaone Morrisonn's quote is more indicative of the current union's voice than anyone would like to admit. As mentioned before, Kelly's dismissal was a board decision, made without the players' involvement, so there's still some information to download to the players.
So assuming all of this plays out, where does it leave the league? Well the current Versus/DirecTV squabble doesn't do the League any good, especially when the union has said in the past a deal with ESPN would be preferable. But that's one of a whole host of issues on the union's plate. The players should absolutely get more involved with the labor issues, especially since there's a CBA to hash out before the 2014 Olympics. Things like a salary cap and television contracts need to be discussed, and they don't need to be discussed with three people whose motives for the union's health can be called into question. Considering the league's most recognizable Russian has said he'd probably play for Russia in '14 regardless of what the next CBA might say, work on a stable CBA should get started with competent, well-informed leadership, not one who, as Ken Campbell mentions, could elevate "the likelihood of one [lockout] happening three years down the road."
For the sake of the league's health, Penny, Lindros and Hargrove should be given a short leash to work with, lest they risk hanging the sport out to dry.