Thursday, February 08, 2007

Once and for all, its time for the NHLPA to wave the white flag

Eighteen months ago the National Hockey Players Association (NHLPA) suffered the biggest setback in the history of sports labor from the perspective of the athletes’ point of view. The National Hockey League Board of Governors stood firm, gave up an entire NHL season (2004-05) and ended up breaking the NHLPA into a million different pieces. Despite the NHLPA returning to the Stone Age, a group of dissident players remain steadfast in their resolve to destroy their union from within and likely as a result obliterate what is left of the National Hockey League.

How bad did NHL Players lose their battle with NHL owners 18 months ago? Jeffrey Kessler, a labor lawyer in New York who has worked for the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. unions, told The New York Times the N.H.L. deal "the largest setback for players that I've seen in collective bargaining."

Since losing their ‘battle’ Chris Chelios and list of NHL players (many retired) continue a relentless battle to destroy the fabric of the NHLPA. The object of their collective anger, the hiring of Ted Saskin. Less than a week after the NHLPA realized it was time to give up a battle they were never going to win, Bob Goodenow who led the NHLPA as their executive director between 1992 and July 2005 announced he was leaving the NHLPA on July 28, 2005.

"With the conclusion of the negotiations and the ratification of the new agreement, the parties concur that this is an appropriate action for the future," said Goodenow. "I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve the Players over the past 15 years and to have had the support of a tremendous staff at the NHLPA. I wish the Players every success under the new CBA."

At the same time, the NHLPA named Ted Saskin, its Senior Director of Business Affairs and Licensing, to succeed Mr. Goodenow as Executive Director and General Counsel. "I have enjoyed working closely with Bob for the Players over the last 15 years. I know how dedicated Bob has been to the Players. I plan to continue to serve them by building on the strong base that Bob created at the NHLPA."

Less than two months later as NHL teams headed back to training camp, trying to restore what was left of the NHL’s brand and market awareness in America, the dissidents struck.

In the simplest of terms, members of the NHLPA were very upset with the end result of the NHL’s year long labor battle with the NHL. Hockey players may indeed be a proud group of athletes, but for whatever reason a group of 29 former and current NHL’ers refused to accept the end result of the NHL’s year long lockout – the utter devastation of the NHLPA.

On September 28, 2005 Trent Klatt (who had retired immediately after the NHLPA capitulated) along with Chris Chelios, Shawn McEachern, Eric Lindros and Brian Leetch filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board in the U.S., alleging improper practices in the hiring of Saskin.

"Our goals are very simple," said Klatt, in a statement at the time. "We want to educate all of our members on the most recent illegal activities of our union. We want to 'right the wrongs' that have occurred and we want to make sure that this can never happen again."

"We understand from media reports that an NLRB charge has been filed against the NHLPA," Saskin told CP in a statement. "While we have not yet received a copy of the charge, based on the information contained in the reports we are confident that the charge has no merit whatsoever.

"It is regrettable that the individuals responsible for filing the charge have chosen to take this step at a time when NHLPA player representatives and executive committee members are in the midst of conducting a democratic and fair election.

"This election process, which was agreed to by the full executive board and without any objections, will continue and will not be disrupted by such baseless actions."

What the dissident members of the NHLPA realized the NHL’s new CBA was the worst in the history of collective sports labor bargaining. However what they failed to understand, “the Cow was out of the barn” – the NHLPA had lost their battle with NHL owners. It was time to move forward, fight the tough fight against NHL owners if they wished but move forward for the good of the game. The 29 players (several have retired) represented less than five percent of the NHLPA’s 700+ membership.

Two months later on November 25, 2005 PricewaterhouseCoopers who conduced a secret ballot vote among the 37-member NHLPA executive board announced 85 percent of the board voted to support and confirm the five-year $10 million contract Saskin signed to replace Goodenow on September 12, 2005.

''While I'm pleased to have the support of a majority of teams and players across the league, I'm also mindful of the fact there is a small but vocal group of dissatisfied players who I must try to get onside,'' Saskin said in an interview with at the time.

“I have now met with half the teams across the league and it's clear there are many questions about what happened within our union over the last 12 months,'' Saskin said. ''I am determined to do my best to provide all the information that players want and to work with all players in an open and constructive manner to strengthen the unity of our association.”

That didn’t stop the very vocal minority. Complaints were filed with both the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board. The Labor Department ruled that the matter wasn't in its jurisdiction while the Labor Board dismissed 11 of 12 complaints, with one pending.

In July, Trevor Linden resigned as NHLPA president during a union meeting that was believed to have ended the infighting. In July, the Chelios group launched another lawsuit this time in Illinois.

On Monday January 22, 2007 U.S. Federal Court Judge Suzanne B. Conlon dismissed the lawsuit that Chris Chelios, Trent Klatt and Dwayne Roloson filed against the NHLPA, Ted Saskin, Trevor Linden, Vincent Damphousse, Bill Guerin and Bob Boughner.

The NHLPA told the Court that Ontario, not Illinois, was the proper place for Chris to bring any complaints that he has. The NHLPA is based there, most witnesses live there, Canadian law applies and the case would be much cheaper in Canada. The Judge ruled in the NHLPA’s favor (and against Chelios).

NHLPA Executive Director Ted Saskin issued the following statement: “We are obviously pleased that the Court granted our motions to dismiss this lawsuit. We have consistently told Chris Chelios and his lawyers that if they insist on pursuing his baseless claims, they should do so in Ontario.”

At the same time Chelios and his miniscule minority put together a DVD that featured highlights of the speeches Chelios offered at the NHLPA’s July meetings where Linden agreed to step down as president of the NHLPA. Saskin offered his own version of what had transpired over the 18 months since the NHL lockout ended in his own DVD. Each NHL player representative received copies of the two DVD’s and copies were shown in meetings to the more than 700 current NHLPA members.

In his DVD Chelios allegedly suggests Saskin was illegally hired as executive director of the union in July 2005 and that since then, he has illegally used union funds to battle his adversaries within the union. Saskin defends himself in his DVD.

Four days after his latest setback on January 25, 2007, Chelios finally succeeded in convincing the 30 individual player representatives to hire Toronto litigator Sheila Block to investigate the charges Saskin was illegally hired as executive director of the union in July 2005 and that since then, he has illegally used union funds to battle his adversaries within the union. The seven member NHLPA executive board did not participate in the vote and Saskin wasn’t a part of the discussion or the vote that moved the examination of Saskin’s hiring forward.

It’s interesting the NHLPA hired Block to conduct what they hope will be an independent investigation. According to Trevor Linden the immediate past president of the NHLPA Block worked with Chelios and the dissident group nine months ago.

"She's not an independent lawyer," said Linden. "The lawyer chosen has been working for the Chelios group.

"She was in Whistler at our (NHL Players Association) meetings, so I don't know how independent she is."

Linden said the review should be conducted by a "third party" that has no ties to either side of the dispute.

"I don't think (the review) is needed," said Linden. "I think most of the questions that were asked, they were all answered to satisfaction at Whistler. Why spend a bunch of money to figure out the same things that we figured out at Whistler?"

A release from Chelios issued by a New York-based public relations company on January 26 said Block would conduct, "a thorough inquiry, examination and review of the business and financial affairs of the NHLPA commencing Jan. 1, 2004, including the appointment of Ted Saskin as the executive director of the NHLPA."

"I know her resume and it's fairly good," Mike Johnson, the Montreal Canadiens' player-rep, said of Block. "There's probably 100 different lawyers you can get to do it, but I'm sure she'll do a good job.

"She's taking direction from us, so whatever we ask her to do, I'm sure she'll do it."

Fair enough but if Linden is to be believed, and given that none of the dissidents have suggested Block wasn’t a part of the Chelios group, how can she possibly be objective given she had believed strongly enough in the issues Chelios had raised to become a part of his legal team. It’s an unimaginable conflict of interest that any fair minded lawyer would remove themselves from. If as Johnson suggests “There's probably 100 different lawyers you can get to do it” why didn’t Chelios who finally had what he wanted make sure the lawyer investigating Saskin wouldn’t be perceived as having any potential conflict of interest?

Meanwhile members of the media (notably New York Post’s Larry Brooks and former New York Ranger Nick Kypreos) have used their media opportunities as a “bully pulpit” to seemingly help build a case against Saskin.

In a column that appeared in the New York Post on Sunday January 28, Brooks suggested “Nearly two years after enemies within betrayed their fellow union members by directly engaging in conversations with league negotiators with the express purpose of undermining then-PA executive director Bob Goodenow.” Brooks suggests if Saskin had his way some as independent as “for instance, like Bill Daly, or maybe an attorney from the NHL's favored law firm of Proskauer-Rose” would conduct the investigation. No where in Brooks rant does Brooks allude to the allegations Trevor Linden made regarding Block being a member in good standing of the Chelios group during July’s NHLPA summit.

Opinions aside, it’s irresponsible for the New York Post to allow Larry Brooks to not report the complete story as it is. Fair enough if Brooks believes Ted Saskin may not be the man to lead the NHLPA. Brooks once worked for the New Jersey Devils and throughout the protracted NHL lockout sided with the players is entitled to his opinions but he’s only reporting one side of the story. That’s bad journalism, but remember this is the New York Post a paper you wouldn’t want to wrap a dead fish in.

Since he retired as an NHL player Nick Kypreos has built a successful career with Canada’s SportsNet. Last week appearing on Toronto’s the Fan 590, Kypreos suggested by the time the dust clears on Block’s investigation of Saskin the truth that will be revealed will imply the actions of Ted Saskin are so bad they will make the days Allan Eagleson was in charge of the NHLPA seem like a walk in the park. Comparing anyone to Allan Eagleson is akin to suggesting that person is the devil reincarnated. If there’s a line in the sand as to what you can say about anyone associated with the NHLPA, comparing anyone to Allan Eagleson is unimaginable.

In 1991, several former players led by former NHL’s Carl Brewer accused Eagleson of racketeering, fraud and embezzling player pension funds, particularly those raised from the ticket sales of the 1972 Summit Series.

He was also accused of colluding with teams whose management he favored, such as the Chicago Blackhawks, to hold down salaries. For example, after former NHL’er and hockey Hall of Fame member Bobby Orr's contract with Boston ran out, Eagleson told Orr that the Blackhawks had a deal on the table that Orr couldn't refuse. It later emerged that the Bruins offered Orr one of the most lucrative contracts in sports history, including an 18 percent stake in the team; however, Eagleson never disclosed this to Orr.

The vast majority of the work done in exposing Eagleson's crimes was conducted by Brewer's long time companion Susan Foster and American newspaper writer Russ Conway of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, a paper located just outside Boston. Conway ran a series of stories detailing Eagleson's activities that was eventually turned into the book Game Misconduct. The first series of reports forced Eagleson to resign as NHLPA executive director in 1991.

In 1994, Eagleson was charged with skimming off money intended for the NHLPA pension fund and disability insurance money. The NHLPA, it turned out, had unknowingly footed the bill for expensive clothing, theater tickets and a luxury apartment in London. In 1998, Eagleson pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud in Boston and was fined $700,000. Later that year, he pleaded guilty in Toronto to three more counts of fraud and embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars of Canada Cup proceeds in 1984, 1987 and 1991. He was disbarred and sentenced to 18 months in jail, of which he served six months.

Soon after his guilty plea, he was removed from the Order of Canada (though he continued to wear his lapel pin during the court proceedings prior to his sentence). He also resigned from the Hockey Hall of Fame after the Hall's board informally voted to expel him (a formal vote, which was almost certain to pass, was due within a few weeks). The Hall had tried to stay out of the controversy, but was forced to act after Orr (who once looked on Eagleson as a big brother), Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Johnny Bucyk, Ted Lindsay, Henri Richard, Brad Park and other prominent players threatened to pull out of the Hall if Eagleson were allowed to remain a member.

What exactly does Chris Chelios hope to have accomplished? The NHL is at the edge of the abyss, it’s no longer a part of the American sports conciseness with the sole exception as serving as cannon fodder (present company included). The league’s television ratings are a source of amusement to media members who talk about a Saturday night game a few weeks back on the MSG Network between the New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers attracting 736 viewers, or how the NHL’s All-Star Game played on January 24 had fewer viewers than a repeat of the Andy Griffith show (which first ran more than 40 years ago).

If Chelios and other NHLPA members are embarrassed by the collective bargaining agreement they signed with the NHL they only have themselves to blame. It was said in the pages of SBN when the NHL and the NHLPA reached their agreement, if the players had understood the implications their year long lockout would have on the outcome of the actions of the NHLPA, they indeed might have managed to secure a much better deal than the one they agreed to in July 2005. If the NHLPA had negotiated and bargained in good faith in the spring of 2004, the two sides would have reached an agreement that would have instilled much of what the NHL wanted, but with players getting a much better deal. It was Bob Goodenow who convinced his union membership during July and August of 2004 if the NHLPA stood as one the union would break the owners in half. Instead a year later it was the NHLPA who fell apart, not the owners.

And what has Chris Chelios vendetta finally come down to? An investigation managed by a lawyer who once worked for Chelios will look into how Saskin was hired. Regardless of the results of Block’s investigation nothing is going to change the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL. Somehow the NHLPA has become a bitter and divided group. Instead of accepting responsibility for their actions, a group of hockey players seem to want to destroy whatever little credibility their union has left.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the New York Post and The Ottawa Sun

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