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The Straight Edge: Looking for some honesty from the NHL, NHLPA

Paul Kelly took over as executive director of the NHLPA in October of 2007. (Photo by Mark Wilson)

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Paul Kelly took over as executive director of the NHLPA in October of 2007. (Photo by Mark Wilson)

Earlier this week I attended the Prime Time Sports Management Conference in Toronto, hosted by now ex-Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke (he was house-hunting. Just kidding).

Though the conference was aimed at business and law folk interested in all major sports, it would shock no one that many of the prominent names came from the hockey world.

Among the speakers were NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly. Bettman was the keynote speaker at the first day’s luncheon, while Kelly took part in a panel discussion with his contemporaries from other players’ associations.

Now, perhaps it was because there were members of the media present (not to mention a ton of lawyers), or perhaps it’s because Bettman and Kelly really do see things quite differently, but it was amazing to me how they could dispute or disagree on certain issues and facts that I thought to be really quite obvious.

Bettman, of course, was asked about the financial viability of some of the league’s struggling southern teams, specifically ones with pretty obvious attendance problems.

“I never like to take snapshots,” he said of the optics in Florida or Atlanta. “These things are fixable.”

He then added: “We try not to re-locate. It’s unfair to the fans in our cities. We have a covenant with our fans.”

Since I can see ear-steam approaching my desk from the west in Winnipeg and from the east in Quebec City, I guess what the commissioner meant was now the NHL has a covenant with its fans. And despite the fact Bettman believes the Panthers and Thrashers can be fixed, he also claimed at the conference he just wasn’t sure if a second team would work in Toronto.

Huh.

Not that I’m going to let Kelly off the hook, either. The union head, giving a status update on the comings and goings of his office, informed the crowd he was currently on a tour of the 30 NHL team dressing rooms, taking the players’ pulse in regards to whether the current collective bargaining agreement, which can be extended by a union option in May, should in fact be prolonged.

What? Why wouldn’t you extend this CBA? The majority of teams in the league feature at least one player making more than $6 million per year and no one makes less than $450,000. Young stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Mike Richards are already locked in to huge long-term deals and Rick DiPietro could buy a fleet of jet packs to use on the ice if his hips don’t heal properly. Even if the state of the economy means a drop in the cap next year, the players are doing fine.

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Now if Kelly’s logic is, “it’s for the good of the league,” don’t bother! The owners aren’t looking out for the league and they never will, so why should you help them? Take the extension and see how things look in a couple years; we’ll be living in a very different landscape and the extra time will help.

The second strange concept floated by Kelly was off-season drug testing (the only time it would matter, really) is too hard because a lot of players spend their summers in Europe.

“We can’t simply focus on North American players,” he noted, adding sending testers to Europe would be “difficult and expensive.”

Again, what? Europe’s not that big, especially when you consider players only come from a handful of northern or eastern countries anyway. Set up a booth in Stockholm, another in Moscow and another in Prague. If a player doesn’t live in one of those cities he can take one of those Ryanair flights that cost slightly more than a bag of chips. It’s one day and it would mean a lot to the union’s legitimacy.

Kelly says the players have nothing to hide, but when they know they’re not tested for months on end, it’s safe to say anyone who wants to cheat can figure out how.

While it's altogether possible Kelly and Bettman are being genuine in their statements, but is it any better for them to be naïve about these things?

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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