Gary Bettman has been at the helm of the NHL since 1993 while Paul Kelly held the union's top job for less than two years (Getty Images)
When you examine the latest exploits of the NHL Players’ Association, the temptation is to view that troubled group as the Michael Jackson of the pro sports union fellowship.
To the untrained eye, the PA’s similarities to the late King of Pop are indeed intriguing: the union appears to operate in a reality-resistant bubble of its own making; it has been bogged down by improper/suspicious relationships (cough–David Frost-cough); it can’t stop romanticizing the Good Old Days; and now, as evidenced by the firing of former executive director Paul Kelly, it hacks away at its collective face with accelerated and frightening regularity.
But you know what? People have got this whole story wrong – and I’ve had it up to here (picture me with my hand stretched high above my satellite-sized noggin) with the outrageous amount of player bashing that’s followed Kelly’s dismissal.
I’ve got nothing against Kelly, by far the most humble, progressive and thoroughly decent man ever to hold the PA’s top post. The players may yet come to rue the day they cut him loose.
But how team owners and league brass have evaded any sort of blame for the environment that led to Kelly’s firing is beyond me.
First of all, let’s get something straight: The league won the lockout. It disproved former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow’s presumption the players could withstand not one, but two full seasons without NHL hockey. It proved billionaire owners can always win a financial game of chicken against millionaire players, especially when (a) the millionaire players are depending on the billionaire owners’ money to continue making them millionaire players; and (b) the billionaire owners make the bulk of their fortune from industries that don’t include the millionaire players.
Because of that victory, the league lawyers drew up the collective bargaining agreement with virtually no assistance from their associates on the players’ side. Yet what nobody is writing about now is that the owners have become Goodenow-like in their aggressive, get-richer-or-die-trying approach to post-lockout league-union relations.
As one prominent U.S.-based player agent suggested in the days immediately following Kelly's firing, the league has for some time (and very quietly) been grieving all kinds of monetary issues behind the scenes, pushing players, agents and union leaders into a corner.
For example: the league has committed to its players participating in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Yet, rather than fully following through on all aspects of that commitment, league commissioner Gary Bettman and his employers chose not to purchase insurance for players to attend pre-Olympic training camps as they had done in the past, forcing the union to recommend the players not attend those camps.
This is the type of “partnership” the NHL always loved to reference during the lockout? What a load of freaking rubbish.
“The league is fighting us tooth-and-nail on everything,” said the agent, who spoke on condition his name not be used. “Once again, they were convinced they won the labor battle with the players and when the players wound up benefiting more than the owners thought they would, the league spends all their time and energy trying to roll back on issues even more than they did when they were calling all the shots during the actual labor negotiations.”
Got that, league apologists? If not, let me recap: At a time when they could have displayed class and benevolence in their labor victory, Bettman and the owners forsook the olive branch for the riding crop and have been nothing but sore winners as they retroactively attempt to plug all the CBA holes GMs and agents have created in the pursuit of a Stanley Cup.
Seeing as they were facing a Goodenowian philosophy from the owners, who can blame the NHLPA’s constituency if it wants an executive director with a Billy Idol snarl and a fuse short enough to make Sam Kinison look like the Dalai Lama?
Not this writer. I wouldn’t argue the players hold the moral and ethical hammer on each and every hockey-related issue; certainly, their reticence to adequately protect the membership (through the use of visors and other increased safety measures) continues to be a huge disappointment.
But contrasted with faceless, profit-mad, corporate monolith owners like the Toronto Maple Leafs’ syndicate – which raised their ticket prices again this year after four straight seasons of no playoff games – and perennial sob-story-uttering, limousine loiterers such as Boston’s Jeremy Jacobs, the players come off looking like Miley Cyrus, a Panda Bear and the Smurfs rolled into one.
So what if the NHLPA fired Kelly? Regardless of whether it proves to be the best decision for them, it at least shows players no longer are afraid to make a bold move against an authority figure when they think it’s necessary and when they believe that leader hasn’t performed to their expectations.
If only the league’s owners had as much gumption and an equally itchy collective trigger finger when their leaders steer them into quagmires – say, for example, into a bottomless money pit in the Arizona desert – the NHL might finally begin a new era that leaves the familiar names and stubborn attitudes of past battles where they belong.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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