Inside the most dysfunctional union in sports

Lying, spying, backstabbing and paranoia: the NHL Players' Union has it all—and it's about to get a whole lot worse.

Legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel once said the key to managing a successful team is “keeping the five guys who hate your guts away from the five guys who haven’t made up their minds yet.”

Stengel knew there are disgruntled people in any organization. Isolating the perpetually disgruntled from the undecideds is what keeps you in power. Which may be the easiest way to explain how executive director Paul Kelly went from saviour of the NHL Players’ Association to unemployed in 22 months, after a late-night coup in August involving former Canadian Auto Workers director Buzz Hargrove — the NHLPA’s interim ombudsman and advisory board member — and the union’s office staff.

In hindsight, Kelly had been a marked man from Day 1 thanks to his own ombudsman, former player Eric Lindros, and general counsel Ian Penny, a survivor of several NHLPA purges. But he lost the undecideds when his 30-man executive board — whipped into a frenzy by advisers including Hargrove and Halifax labour lawyer Ron Pink — rubber-stamped his demise at 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 31 in Chicago without ever consulting the general membership.

Later that day, a satisfied Hargrove told sports radio station FAN 590, “The players were very clear that they did not believe, have confidence in or trust that [Kelly] could bring the leadership of the NHLPA together to work as a unified group and work in their best interest.” Of course, not everyone agrees. Last week, Pat Brisson and J. P. Barry, two of the league’s top player agents, released a statement decrying the covert, late-night circumstances under which Kelly was fired. “We are encouraging each of our clients to educate themselves with union matters so they can understand how these types of decisions are reached,” they said. “We believe that a strong and unified voice is necessary. In order for that to happen, the majority of players need to be heard.”

On Sept. 18, Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby added his voice to a growing chorus of disapproval among the players. “I definitely want to know how things happened,” he said. “I am part of the union like every other player and I think we all deserve a good explanation.” Perennial all-star Rob Blake agreed. “I don’t think we can make decisions of that magnitude without complete involvement,” Blake told TSN. “Had [the executive board] waited a few more weeks, teams would have been in camp and the players would have been easily accessible.”

Instead, barely two years from removing Kelly’s predecessor Ted Saskin for snooping on players’ e-mails, and two years from the start of serious negotiations on a new collective agreement with the NHL, the players have found themselves rudderless. But then, it’s just another chapter in the long and twisted history of the NHLPA — home of the world’s top hockey players, and surely the most dysfunctional union in sports history.

In essence, the anti-Kelly faction among the NHLPA staff and advisory board decided to jettison its new executive director upon discovering that he intended to be more than a hood ornament. In the months before they sprang their plan upon exhausted players in a Chicago hotel room, the rebels exploited the inexperience of the 30 team representatives and the trauma of the NHLPA’s trouncing by the owners in the 2004–05 lockout to seal Kelly’s fate.

The plan owed much of its success to stealth and subterfuge — virtually none of the 700-plus members outside the executive board knew about Kelly’s imminent ousting. The disaffected parties hid behind anonymous letters, whispering and sniping from the cover of darkness. After the firing, retired NHL star Jeremy Roenick put it bluntly: “[It] isn’t cowardly. It’s chickenshit.”

The “silver bullet” that fatally wounded Kelly has not been revealed by the NHLPA’s executive board. Sources allege that he accessed minutes of a secret players’ meeting during which the contract of his rival, legal counsel Ian Penny, was extended and Kelly’s own failings were discussed. Compared to the ethical and collective-bargaining failures that got Kelly’s predecessors fired, it was weak gruel — sources say this is one reason it has never been officially offered to a skeptical public. But it was couched as high crimes and misdemeanors in the labour world by Hargrove and Pink, and insiders say it was enough to convince the players on the executive board to terminate Kelly in the middle of the night.

The real cause of his dismissal was likely far more straightforward. As a moderate who believed in being cordial with his opposites at the league, Kelly was anathema to the hardliners who’d taken the NHLPA into its disastrous lockout in 2004–05. More to the point, those who’d toppled Saskin for reading players’ e-mails — principally, former NHL star Eric Lindros — felt they were not sufficiently appreciated for their troubles. Finally, the player reps were subjected over months to a consistent message from their own staff: that if the NHLPA wanted to be taken as seriously as the omnipotent Major League Baseball Players Association, it had to rein in a wayward executive director who was clearly not prepared to go into battle for them.

It was an effective message. Outside the black-and-white world of wins and losses, the grey realities of professional hockey are foreign territory to most players — particularly Canadian players inculcated in the “good of the game” mentality. Historically, hockey players have invariably relied on the wrong people for advice. As Roenick observed, “They are really influenced by the smarter people — the lawyers, and the guys who seem to have gone to college and wear the suits and ties and represent themselves as being the smart people. The players look at these guys and put their faith in them, and sometimes they shouldn’t do that.”

With millions in their pockets and adulation everywhere they go, it’s no secret that the modern player tries, often unsuccessfully, to be more sophisticated than he is. Stories of players losing hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in bad investments are a staple of sports reporting. In 2009 alone, there were reportedly 15 former NHL players trying to get their money out of the troubled Bear Mountain Resort development on Vancouver Island. In Mexico, almost a dozen former NHL stars were suing to regain $25 million in a golf-course development gone wrong. Former Hart trophy winner Sergei Fedorov successfully sued a former business agent for $60 million in fraudulent investments.

That vulnerability to coercion extends to the running of their union. With the sudden firing of Kelly, players will have gone through four executive directors in five years — and millions of dollars in compensation — by the time his replacement is selected, before Jan. 1, 2010.

Today’s bitter union infighting has its roots in 92 years of labour problems in the NHL. From the founding of the league until 1967, players had no union, and agents were forbidden by most clubs. When owners or general managers weren’t exploiting boys from the farms and mines, players hobbled themselves. For years, their almost Masonic code of secrecy was a stumbling block. No one exchanged salary information. No one fraternized with players on other teams. No matter how wronged, how humiliated, you sucked it up silently, played the game, and disappeared from the scene with little fanfare.

Early attempts to organize the players were ruthlessly crushed by owners such as Conn Smythe; others fell prey to divisive infighting among players who all wanted to be, in the words of ex-Maple Leaf Bobby Baun, “the boss cow.”

In 1967, players finally created the National Hockey League Players Association under the leadership of Eagleson, a Toronto lawyer. But any sense of accomplishment was short-lived. Rather than providing protection and leverage — as did the MLBPA, founded that same year — Eagleson’s 25-year rule was equal measures of capitulation, lost opportunities and, with his conviction for fraud in 1998, disgrace. While athletes in other sports saw earnings soar, hockey players remained rooted in an economic prison of their own making. With Eagleson led off to jail after years of self-dealing and embezzlement, the PA hired former agent Bob Goodenow, a tough-talking American with very different ideas.

Under Goodenow’s relentless drive to improve salaries and benefits, the NHLPA became, for a time, one of the most cohesive labour organizations in North America and a target for the men who owned and ran the NHL. The mere mention of Goodenow set management’s teeth on edge. The players trumped the owners in a 1991 strike and a lockout in 1994–95. Bolstered by a strong union and educated player agents, NHL players beat the owners at their own game, seizing control of hockey’s economics. As they confronted the owners’ lockout in the fall of 2004, salaries topped out at US$11 million a year. Even the median salary of $800,000 a season was a king’s ransom compared to the meagre stipends of years past.

But Goodenow’s hardball style earned him powerful enemies inside and outside the NHLPA. And when the league pursued a scorched-earth policy, locking out players again in September 2004 to obtain a salary cap, the abrasive Michigan native saw his leadership hijacked by a group of stars and NHLPA staff who cut a deal behind his back. Abandoned, Goodenow resigned and was succeeded by Ted Saskin, one of the men who’d negotiated a tactical surrender to owners. Fatally, Saskin was hired without a search committee or any due diligence by union president Trevor Linden.

Marvin Miller, the godfather of sports unionism who turned the MLBPA into a powerful force, ridiculed the NHLPA in late 2005. “The whole thing smells bad,” he told The New York Times. “You have a so-called senior adviser who takes the leading role in making one of the worst settlements imaginable and then becomes director of the union.” He said the move confirmed what he had always known: “that the NHLPA has never been a legitimate union at any time.”

Miller’s scathing assessment was borne out again 18 months later when Saskin himself was the victim of a coup. Players discovered that Saskin had been reading their private e-mails as he fought a dissident group headed by Lindros, Chris Chelios, Dwayne Roloson and Trent Klatt — who were still seething from Goodenow’s dismissal. To replace Saskin, the players used an extensive search process for a new executive director — one who’d be scrupulously honest. After months of interviews, they chose Boston lawyer Paul Kelly, the same man who’d prosecuted Eagleson for the U.S. Justice Department and defended Marty McSorley in his assault case after injuring Donald Brashear. While not a charter member of the hockey tribe, Kelly’s reputation as a trustworthy friend of players was thought to be the perfect antidote to the crooked Eagleson, the tough-cop Goodenow and the Machiavellian Saskin. Critics said the problem for Kelly was, in Donald Rumsfeld’s famous phrase, “He didn’t know what he didn’t know.”

Kelly soon learned the home truths about the NHLPA: the past is never dead, and those on the losing side never give up. Within a few months of his hiring in October of 2007, Kelly was already hearing open criticism of his operation of the NHLPA. Lindros — the man who had championed Kelly’s hiring — quickly turned against him when the retired NHL player discovered that Kelly was going to be his own man. Failing to befriend Lindros was a tactical mistake for Kelly; Lindros and his family had a long history of conflict with authority dating back to his refusal to accept being drafted to Quebec City in the 1991 NHL player draft. Characteristically, Lindros, the PA’s first ombudsman, responded by bombarding Kelly, the staff and the executive committee of 30 player reps with complaints about Kelly’s being too media friendly or travelling too often away from the union’s Toronto headquarters.

Others in hockey’s hidebound culture complained about Kelly’s lack of a hockey background (even though it had been acknowledged at his hiring). Still others began charging that he had no plan for the next collective bargaining in 2012 with the NHL, and that he was too friendly with commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners. Player agents such as Ritch Winter complained that he and other agents weren’t being consulted, or that Kelly was withholding information.

Making matters more complicated, the players had adopted a new constitution and management structure in the wake of the Saskin disaster, one which radically redefined the relationship of the executive director to the union. Where once Eagleson or Goodenow had been able to express policy themselves, Kelly was suddenly required to seek approval from the players’ board before talking about even the most mundane issues in the NHLPA — a cumbersome process when players are spread across North America and Europe.

Finally, the new constitution introduced an advisory board featuring labour lawyer Ron Pink (who, unbeknownst to players, had been passed over for Kelly’s job), Hargrove and several former players closely aligned with Lindros. Suddenly Kelly had to appease not just 700 hockey players but a chorus of opinionated, second-guessing advisers, divisional reps, and an ombudsman. It was, of course, a recipe for disaster.

To placate the hardliners, Kelly had ignored suggestions to clean house in the fractious head office and retained numerous Goodenow loyalists such as Penny and Kim Murdoch. Accustomed to Goodenow’s militant attitude toward the league, they came to feel Kelly was moving too close to Bettman and the NHL. (Even though hockey insiders said the NHL saw Kelly as a formidable foe for the next negotiations for a CBA.)

Kelly won the first round in the battle of wills when Lindros either quit or was fired from the newly created ombudsman in February of this year. But Lindros’s stinging criticisms made their way into the press, forcing Kelly to fight rearguard actions to consolidate his leadership. Typically, even Kelly’s decision to challenge the league over the pension issues of retired union members — something no previous executive director had pursued — provoked internal division. When it became clear that widows of NHL stars were being shortchanged by the league’s pension plan, Kelly pursued the case — against the advice of the NHLPA’s own internal “expert.” An Ontario court subsequently agreed with Kelly, awarding as much as $20 million-plus in pension benefits that were previously being denied to the widows and families of deceased NHL players.

And yet, Kelly lost the hearts of people within the executive board at some point after Lindros’s exit. Having seen Lindros’s frontal assault on Kelly fail, the dissenting elements within the staff and advisory board began a back-channel campaign to bring down the Boston lawyer. At least some detractors picked up the thread. A rambling, anonymous letter sent to some media outlets before this June’s NHLPA annual meetings in Las Vegas listed multiple complaints against Kelly and opened the door to a public conversation. “Since Kelly arrived,” it said, “it has grown clearer to insiders that Kelly is focused on collecting his $1,500,000 in salary and $500,000 yearly bonus and not necessarily focused on bettering the players’ interest (i.e., gauging their interests and needs as a collective).” The letter went on to cite how Kelly’s family never moved to Toronto from Boston, how he lacked labour-law experience, and how he was “too tight with the league and would sell out the union if given the opportunity.”

The whispering campaign bore fruit at the June meetings when, at an in-camera meeting held without Kelly in attendance, players voted to extend Penny’s contract for another five years. When apprised of this, Kelly protested that it was against the NHLPA constitution to do so without his approval. A re-vote was quickly conducted to paper over the mistake and extend Penny’s deal. Instead of thanking their executive director for his diligence, however, the players scheduled a review of the NHLPA’s office morale to be delivered at the August meeting of the executive board in Chicago.

August is the sleepiest month in hockey, when players are on holidays and out of contact with NHLPA business. But everyone in the union’s inside group of 50 or so people knew one side would not survive the Chicago meeting. In the weeks following the confidential June in-camera meeting, Kelly sought and obtained the transcripts and gleaned from them the magnitude of the forces lined up against him. Still, he felt that when he demonstrated the ways in which the rebels were bending the constitution themselves (how could Hargrove act as both neutral ombudsman and adviser to the rebel group?) he might win back the players’ support in August.

The showdown at Chicago’s Drake Hotel became a nasty standoff of rival groups at opposite ends of the lobby. Supporting Kelly was Ted Lindsay, the Hall of Famer who’d tried unsuccessfully to start a union in 1957. The meeting began with the report by Anne Marie Turnbull, which savaged Kelly’s running of the office. “She was stabbing [Kelly] every minute that she was talking, and she talked for more than an hour,” Lindsay later told ESPN. “About his qualifications, his attitude, what they thought of him in the office.”

Kelly addressed his accessing of confidential files, saying that Hargrove had lost his credibility as ombudsman by his machinations with the dissenters, and that he, Kelly, was attempting to establish whether the constitution was breached in extending Penny’s contract. (Ironically, Hargrove later showed Kelly’s own confidential e-mails he had obtained to confirm that Kelly had solicited the in-camera transcripts.) From there, the blood was in the water. Despite calls to sleep on their decision, dissident players forged ahead till 3:30 a.m. A secret vote was finally called, Kelly was summoned to hear that he’d been fired, and the rebels high-fived each other in the hallway within sight of Kelly’s group.

In a bitter moment for Kelly, the board’s decision was read by Chris Chelios — long a Kelly supporter. Andrew Ference, a defenceman for Boston, said the board had been left with no choice: “This has been bubbling for a while now, and when we gathered the information together, there was simply stuff there that couldn’t be ignored.”

But even as the exhausted players congratulated themselves on their vigilance, a torrent of abuse engulfed them. “I was so disgusted and so discouraged, and I still feel that way,” Lindsay told ESPN. “This was union activity at its best — intimidation. I don’t blame the kids. They started at 4 p.m. and went until 3:30 a.m. Players were so irritated by then, it was like, ‘Let’s just vote and get out of here.’ That’s union activity ….They used the element of fatigue. Some player with some brains should have said, ‘No, fellas, let’s get a few hours of sleep and come back.’ That’s what they should have done.”

Others pointed out that many of the executive board members were marginal players, and given their jobs as player reps by default. “The education of those players is going to be very low,” Roenick told 640 Radio. “I would say that most of them have high-school educations, not college educations, and not to put athletes down, but they are not the brightest bulbs in the box. It’s unfortunate that the NHLPA continues to make a mockery of itself and take away its credibility.”

Others were bewildered at not being consulted before the move. “It was beyond a surprise. It was a complete shock,” veteran Brendan Shanahan told the Newark Star-Ledger. Superstar Alex Ovechkin echoed his confusion over the sudden sacking. “I don’t know what happened,” he told reporters. “I didn’t talk with the guys. I don’t know what the situation is, so I don’t know if it’s a good decision or a bad decision.”

The embattled executive members tried to fight back. “We’ve got a lot of negative publicity and criticism since the change was made,” Robyn Regehr of the Calgary Flames said, “but that’s coming from people who don’t know the whole story.”

For the time being, the fight has gone back underground as both sides prepare for legal warfare. The triumphant dissidents have set about to find an executive director more to their liking. Some of their opponents have vowed to replace the executive members for acting without consulting membership. Others have even suggested forming a rival union or seeking to disband it altogether. Whatever direction it takes, the latest union purge has left players without leadership as they head into a crucial round of collective-bargaining talks. And that’s music to the ears of owners who crushed them last time around at the bargaining table.