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Opinion: The NHLPA Needs Change, and Soon

Eventually, you have to answer for your actions. And that time is now for the NHLPA.
NHL Puck

When you talk about the National Hockey League Players Association, you’d be amiss if you didn’t note what a chaotic entity it has been in the past 25 years. 

And really, since the NHLPA was founded in 1967, it has almost constantly been a place where controversy abounds.

The latest incident came this past week with the revelations of the sexual and psychological abuse that took place within the Chicago Blackhawks organization in 2010, and the news that the NHLPA was told about the problem and did nothing to follow up on it. That’s about as terrible an optic as there is. Willful ignorance, wagon-circling and buck-passing when it comes to reporting of crimes does not endear anyone to your team or company, no matter how many Stanley Cups you win, or how many players you claim to represent. 

Eventually, you have to answer for your actions. And that time is now for the NHLPA.

That much was clear when the Players Association announced this week it would consent to an independent investigation of the Hawks’ player – forward Kyle Beach – attempts to report abuse, and the lack of action taken by NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. The longtime NHL and MLB labor advocate said in a statement that he, the NHLPA and the entire hockey “system” failed Beach.

"(It’s) a serious failure,” Fehr said. “There is no doubt that the system failed to support him in his time of need, and we are part of that system.”

While that admission was more commendable and honest than the ducking-and diving-press-conference-job done by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, it still leaves room to question exactly what is going to happen with the PA after this independent investigation concludes. If the investigation finds fault with Fehr, is he going to resign, as many people connected with the Beach story already have? And if so, who is going to replace him and push the PA in a direction that is much more responsible and responsive to its members?

It has been difficult for the players to strengthen their representation, given the megalomaniacs, power-grabbers, and an outright criminal (Alan Eagleson) who rose to the top of the PA. After Eagleson was rightfully bounced in 1992, lawyer Bob Goodenow took over – and for the next 13 years, the PA saw its salary skyrocket, but it also earned the wrath of Bettman and NHL team owners, who introduced a salary cap system. The Players Association balked at that, and for a full year in the 2004-05 NHL season, there was no hockey played. The owners locked out the players, and basically dared the PA to test their resolve.

Unfortunately for the players, Bettman had anticipated this labor war, and amassed a massive amount of money to help the owners outlast the players. Goodenow, filled with confidence and maybe a little bit of hubris, thought players could and should withhold their services. But at that point, Goodenow was living in a glass house and throwing stones; reports of his intimidating aura and surly demeanor flooded out, and Goodenow came away from it looking like someone who was looking out for himself before he looked out for players.

That accusation would come again almost immediately after Goodenow resigned from the PA halfway through 2005. His successor, lawyer Ted Saskin, was hired by the players to replace him on the merits of his work with the PA as its Senior Director. But less than two years later, Saskin was fired following an investigation that concluded he and NHLPA executive Ken Kim improperly accessed player email accounts.

The leadership whirlwind continued after Saskin’s firing: in 2007, the PA hired attorney Paul Kelly. Like Saskin, though, Kelly would not last two years in the position. He was fired by the PA in August of 2009. And that change would bring in Fehr, who has lasted as PA executive director more than a decade now.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, the just-announced investigation concludes there was severe wrongdoing and lack of action at the highest levels of the NHLPA. Are the players prepared to dismiss Fehr and once again search for an advocate who will act in the players’ interest, not their own? They already know what can go wrong if you promote internally, but when the PA turned to Kelly as an outsider to the organization, that didn’t work out either.

At some point, the players have to take responsibility for the state of the Players Association today. Too often, the PA’s attention, including players themselves, have been focused on the high-profile, big-money elements of professional hockey. Too often, player grievances get pushed to the wayside. It’s not easy for the PA, and I understand why: they’re a union created to support their members, but in many instances, they have to support both the victim of an on-ice aggressor and the alleged aggressor. 

There has to be a better way to operate.

Years of frustration have built to the point current NHLers have expressed their disillusionment with the PA. Maybe it is time for Fehr to go, But if they choose to hire internally and promote someone within the current organization (hello there, Mathieu Schneider), there should and will be skeptics that any significant progress is going to be made. We can’t just take their word for it. We need to fight doggedly to ensure steps are being made. We need to keep our eyes on this. We can’t let apathy shove this problem to the side.

When it is released, the internal investigation will make huge waves, but only from the media. The key to progress is ensuring the NHLPA follows up on its recommendations. The key is transparency. That’s the least the league and PA owe Kyle Beach.

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