NHLPA Skating on Thin Ice

Another bizarre chapter is unfolding in the NHLPA’s contentious history, but although some short-term tumult can be expected, the events of the past week might just have been enough to jar the union’s fractured membership back towards unity.

NHLPA representatives voted late Sunday night to put executive director Ted Saskin and senior director Ken Kim on a paid leave of absence while an ongoing internal review continues. Already under fire from a dissident group of players over the circumstances by which he succeeded Bob Goodenow, Saskin was hit with new allegations last week, when Toronto’s police investigated complaints that Saskin and Kim had tampered with player emails.

“As far as I’m concerned, the biggest thing… is having everyone agree on our decision for the leave of absence,” veteran Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios told the AP. “This is the first big step in the right direction to unify the union. I’m very happy about that.”

A movement to unseat Saskin has essentially been underway ever since he took over for Goodenow back on July 28, 2005. Instead of taking the helm on an interim basis and forming a search committee to interview potential candidates, Saskin took the position for himself and negotiated a lucrative five-year contract with former players’ president Trevor Linden.

A group of dissidents—including Chelios, former NHLers Trent Klatt and Steve Larmer—expressed grave concern about the process by which Saskin took over. And while they had very little support in the wake of the lockout settlement, their persistence eventually led to an internal review currently being conducted by Toronto lawyer Sheila Block.

The players also voted Sunday night to go ahead and look for independent counsel to help guide them through the next phase of their operations. The six-member interim executive committee, which did not vote Sunday night, will be responsible for recommending that independent lawyer.

“We can’t afford not to do this right, for everybody involved,” said Ottawa Senators forward Daniel Alfredsson. “We’d like to get this moving along, but it’s very important to do the right thing.”

Unfortunately, there are some clear signs that the players are still being penny-wise and dollar-foolish where their leadership is concerned.

“If we end up firing (Saskin), he’s entitled to a severance package” one player told the Toronto Globe & Mail. “That’s the biggest concern. Why should we give a severance package to him?”

The Toronto Star obtained a copy of Saskin’s employment agreement with the NHLPA; according to that document, he will be entitled to a severance payment of over $2 million if he is terminated with notice. But if the evidence uncovered in the ongoing email tampering investigation yields the conclusion that Saskin has acted improperly, it is quite probable that the NHLPA will be able to fire him for cause.

But whether Saskin is given severance pay should definitely not be the NHLPA’s concern right now; that should be left to the lawyers. What they should be worried about is who’s going to be lead them into the future, hopefully a leader capable of negotiating fair collective bargaining agreements while still retaining some semblance of peace with the owners.

Of course, finance will be the players’ primary priority when searching for a new union chief. But it would serve them well to look at the big picture, and to hire a union chief who looks far beyond the next paycheck and understands what’s best for the game at large from a long-term perspective. For while the players’ wealth increased tremendously under Goodenow, other important areas were left in neglect.

And furthermore, the union must figure out how better to meet the needs of their entire membership, and not only their superstars.

During the lockout, the subject of contraction came up numerous times. Perhaps they were simply playing hardball, but the NHLPA never expressed an ounce of concern that with each disbanded franchise, 23 jobs would be eliminated.

And of course, although the NHLPA has focused its attentions almost entirely on money, there are numerous other areas in serious disrepair. For one obvious example, there’s the concern of safety in the workplace, normally a union’s primary focus.

Over the course of the past two decades, there have been some tremendous innovations made with regard to protective equipment for hockey players. And while some players suit up with the latest and greatest gear, many others choose to use the same equipment they did when breaking into the league in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The result, of course, is a wildly different assessment of on-ice risk. For one obvious example, players wearing face shields tend to be far more careless with their sticks, while those without proper facial protection are substantially more vulnerable. A comprehensive review of player safety is long overdue, and uniformity of protection should be a chief concern for Saskin’s successor.

For certain, this is a difficult time for the NHLPA. But if they conduct their search for a new leader in an intelligent fashion, they just might be able to emerge from this latest scandal with newfound longevity.

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