The revolving door at the NHL Players’ Association has picked up speed with its members showing Executive Director Paul Kelly to the exit. According to NHLPA Ombudsman Buzz Hargrove, the players didn’t have the “trust and confidence” in Kelly required to lead them any more.
The next NHLPA boss will be the fourth to hold the position since 2005 (five if you count current Interim Executive Director Ian Penny). The NHLPA’s front office is starting to look like the average NFL team’s coaching staff in terms of turnover — and this should not please fans as the union’s 2011 contract negotiations approach.
According to Darren Dreger of TSN, the atmosphere surrounding the vote to remove Kelly was acrimonious to say the least. After hours of discussions, Kelly “bolted from the boardroom visibly upset, he refused
to comment . . . before quickly leaving the area all together.” The NHLPA simply stated that the players voted “overwhelmingly” for Kelly’s removal.
The message seems to be that the players want a tougher character in place for 2011. Or perhaps the players are simply following the lead of Buzz Hargrove, the “interim” Ombudsman for the past 2.5 years and some say the real power behind the current NHLPA.
Hargrove was the longtime leader of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, and fought hard for both his CAW charges and his own reelections. But leading a mammoth union of auto workers is one thing; a relatively small union of athletes is an entirely different beast.
The NHL is still dragging itself out of the muck and mire of its self-imposed obscurity, recovering from its devastating lockout. The lockout’s damage may never be completely undone, but the NHL is certainly in better shape than a few years ago — in no small part due to the charisma of stars like Alex Ovechkin drawing fans to the game. ESPN’s Bill Simmons recently declared his wish for more sporting exuberance a la Ovi: “I love Ovechkin’s self-check into the boards [after a goal]. It’s fantastic.” High-Definition television doesn’t hurt either; hockey may benefit more from HD than any other sport (e.g., “Hey, I can see the puck!”)
Fans should pray to the hockey gods that union bluster does not threaten the league’s hard-fought gains. For those gains, while notable, will crumble if the union and the owners do not work together. Hockey is still hovering on the popular fringe in most U.S. markets. With the continuing recession and increasing competition for entertainment dollars, hockey remains in a precarious situation — one that almost certainly could not survive another big labor stoppage.
For the sake of fans everywhere, let’s hope that the NHLPA remembers just how fortunate its members are to be paid so well for jobs they love. Whoever steps in as the new Executive Director must do what it takes to keep hockey hale and hearty — and not use the position for grandstanding. The NHLPA best represents its members’ interests by negotiating constructively, not destructively, and by keeping its players on the ice.