Chelios, who has led the fight to unseat Ted Saskin, hopes the union can come together after the players’ executive board voted Sunday night to give the executive director a paid leave of absence.
“As far as I’m concerned, the biggest thing after last night’s call is having everyone agree on our decision for the leave of absence (of Saskin),” the veteran Detroit defenceman told The Canadian Press on Monday. “This is the first big step in the right direction to unify the union. I’m very happy about that.”
But now what? The next few weeks and months will be intriguing times at the NHLPA as new leadership is sought and the membership tries to heal old divisions.
It appears the leave of absence marks the end of Saskin’s time at the NHLPA helm.
Outside counsel will be hired to conduct an investigation into allegations that Saskin read NHLPA player e-mails.
“It’s something we’re looking at very seriously and we’ve got to get to the bottom of it,” said Ottawa Senators star Daniel Alfredsson, considered a key Saskin backer in the last 18 months.
How Saskin exits – by firing or buyout – essentially depends on what they find, although Saskin can fight back with his own lawyers since he has denied any wrongdoing. Saskin’s in the second year of a five-year deal reportedly worth US$10 million.
Attempts to reach Saskin on Monday weren’t successful since his e-mail and BlackBerry had been disconnected.
While his departure leaves a void at the top, everyone agrees this is no time to rush.
“That’s imperative,” said Alfredsson, a member of the NHLPA’s interim executive committee. “We can’t afford not to do this right, for everybody involved. We’d like to get this moving along but it’s very important to do the right thing.”
“I think that this is a very critical stage,” added Kevyn Adams of the Phoenix Coyotes, another committee member.
A previously scheduled internal review by Toronto lawyer Sheila Block continues. She is looking into the manner in which Saskin was hired to replace Goodenow. Her review is slated to be completed by early summer.
Players on Sunday’s conference call were greeted by NHLPA outside counsel Stu Grimson and director of hockey affairs Mike Gartner, who informed them that Saskin acknowledged reading player e-mails after being confronted by them last Wednesday.
The next day Saskin, in an interview with The Canadian Press, said he “never accessed a player e-mail account and I have never ordered NHLPA technical staff to access player e-mail accounts.”
But did he read players’ e-mails? According to players on the call Sunday night, Grimson and Gartner said he did.
“I’m surprised,” said Carolina Hurricanes player rep Craig Adams. “I would never have thought that these allegations would be true. And it seems like they are. That surprises me and disappoints me. …
“Obviously you’d like to think you could trust the people that seem to have your best interests in mind and work for you. So yes, it is disappointing.”
Saskin’s support outnumbered the dissident group led by Chelios until the e-mail controversy erupted last week.
“Now that they’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth, they’ve heard the information that Stu Grimson, Mike Gartner and (NHLPA outside counsel) Ian Penny gave last night, it changed a lot of things and a lot of opinions with the players and that’s exactly what I thought would happen,” said Chelios.
“I’ve gotten hundreds of calls from players already,” Chelios added. “They can’t even believe what’s happened and they’re thanking me. And now they understand. The key now is that everybody will be on the same page, everybody is going to agree with the decisions we’re making now.”
Well, not quite everybody.
“Really, do we know who’s in charge right now? Absolutely not,” said Tampa Bay Lightning player rep Tim Taylor. “Basically, I think the only people in charge right now are the lawyers trying to do the investigation . . . I guess Chris Chelios might be in charge right now. He seemed like he wanted to take charge of the whole thing in the first place.”
Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco, however, credited Chelios for his efforts.
“Call him stubborn or call him what you want, but he knew that something needed to be done,” said Turco, a member of the executive committee. “I think 700 or so players need to take their hats off to his continuing efforts to speak the truth.”
Veteran Coyotes centre Jeremy Roenick said he likes Saskin as a person but draws the line if the e-mail allegations are found to be true.
“To have to snoop . . . into other people’s business and tap into personal business, that’s really disappointing,” said Roenick.
“. . . And I’m not saying Ted’s a bad guy, he’s a good guy. He’s got a family to take care and this is a tough time for him. But you have to be accountable for your actions, just like we are on the ice.”
Hiring their next leader will be closely scrutinized. This whole battle began in the first place when Saskin replaced Bob Goodenow on July 28, 2005, without other candidates being interviewed for the job. That’s what sparked dissention from Chelios, former executive committee member Trent Klatt and former NHLPA executive Steve Larmer.
“That was the biggest question mark, how things developed so quickly,” said Chelios, who agrees Saskin may very well had been hired anyway had other candidates been interviewed.
“He was given that offer to put his name in the hat. But he refused it, he did not make that an option.”
This time, expect several candidates to be interviewed and scrutinized.
“The thing from the beginning with Chris, and his group of players, has been to slow the process down and make sure you go through the appropriate channels,” said Kevyn Adams.
Said Roenick: “As an organization we have to go through the process of having 10 or 11 guys interviewed for the job, like we did when Goodenow got it. They went through an array of guys. It has to be done properly this time.”
Who will make the short list for interviews? Already there are rumblings that player agents Michael Gillis and J.P. Barry could be considered.
“We need to get someone in there who is new, that has no ties to the league, and have him do it the right way, the proper way,” argued Roenick.
In the short-term, there are other concerns. As Taylor pointed out, who exactly is running the ship right now?
“Good question, I don’t think I have a definite answer for you right now,” said Alfredsson.
Grimson, Gartner and Penny, it appears, will run things at head office in accordance with what the executive board continues to decide moving forward.
“Right now the big concern is to make sure that we are governed properly for the rest of this year,” said Roenick. “We still have a budget that has to be run, we still have the escrow that has to be monitored to a tee. Who’s going to do that?”
NHLPA senior director Ken Kim was also put on a paid leave of absence after Sunday’s call. He, too, has been accused of monitoring NHLPA player e-mails.
The six-member interim executive committee will be responsible for recommending an independent lawyer to investigate the e-mail allegations.
Saskin joined the NHLPA in 1992 and was credited with helping the union increase its revenue in the licensing department. He was senior director, Goodenow’s right-hand man, before replacing him.
The turmoil within the union ranks follows a contentious labour agreement that saw the union yield to a salary cap.