Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Is the Kelly Firing a Sign of Union Militancy?

Mark Twain once famously said that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress. Given the history of corruption inside the National Hockey League Players Association, one might say that the NHLPA falls into that same distinct class. The NHLPA continued its string of dubious decisions and actions by firing current NHLPA Director Paul Kelly at 3:30 in the morning on August 31st at the conclusion of a 7 hour board meeting. Kelly had been in the job of Executive Director less than two years, but had been praised as been very pragmatic about running the PA, passionate about the game, and a man of integrity. Kelly's critics said that he did not do enough to get to know the players and that he was too close to Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy, Bill Daly.

The NHLPA has had a storied and corrupt history. The first head of the PA, Alan Eagleson, stole money from the players and the union (ironically, Paul Kelly helped to prosecute Eagleson). Kelly's predecessor, Ted Saskin was terminated because of improperly accessing and monitoring player e-mails. Bob Goodenow, Director of the PA prior to and during the last lockout, was ousted after the lockout season due to an abrasive and confrontational negotiating and leadership style. Kelly was seen as the first "clean" leader the PA has ever had , which is a sad commentary on the union and it leadership to this point.

As information starts to emerge about the PA's action, it appears that a cabal of insiders spearheaded the ouster movement. Buzz Hargrove, the current Ombudsman who replaced a deposed Eric Lindros; Ian Penny, the PA's legal counsel; and Ron Pink, Chairman of the union's advisory board mounted the effort to remove Kelly. It is rumored that Lindros has been a powerful influence behind the ouster movement, which is interesting for this fact: Kelly had ordered a forensic audit of the PA's finances for the three years prior to his assumption of the Director's role. That audit, while not complete, has uncovered questionable uses of union funds by, drum roll please... Eric Lindros and Ian Penny, the aforementioned legal counsel. Is anyone, given the history of the PA, really surprised by this action?

Fans of hockey cannot draw comfort from this action. The union is now controlled by leadership that is militant and confrontational and less interested in the good of the game. This old guard is still angry about the concessions the players put in place after the lockout of the 2004-05 season. With the collective bargaining agreement set to expire at the end of the 2011 season, the stage is set for another confrontation that threatens to shutter the arenas around the league. According to James Murphy of Murphy's Law, writing on NESN,
"These guys could really care less about whether the game and
the NHL take another PR hit with a work stoppage," according to one source.
"They're more concerned with making money. They had a cozy setup before Kelly
came in and found out what was going on. He has done his best to clean things up
and distance the union from its troubled past. Unfortunately, part of that
cleaning up should have been housecleaning because now these guys are conspiring
against him. This is simply crazy."

The action by the PA has signaled to the fans that the union leadership is going to change directions and become more confrontational with owners and management. If this course of action leads to a work stoppage and a lockout, then everyone will be hurt. I'm not saying that this will happen, but as a fan, I'm certainly not comfortable with the leadership in place in the PA given their history. The naming of the new Director is going to be very telling.

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