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Eric Duhatschek

Healy's exit the final straw Add to ...

For better or worse, the Paul Kelly era is over at the National Hockey League players' association. The final straw came Thursday when, after three days of wrestling with his decision, Glenn Healy, the last of the Kelly loyalists, resigned. Healy hand-delivered a letter outlining his reasons to the NHLPA's interim executive director, Ian Penny, early Thursday afternoon.

Healy's departure leaves the NHLPA with one more significant hole and the question now becomes, who is next? What credible candidate can the NHLPA possibly recruit to come in and work in an office with the toxicity level of a night-time soap opera? It's almost as if Melrose Place were back on the air.

Now, that's not to say there won't be a ton of resumes flooding the offices of 20 Bay St.

The greedy and the avaricious know how to spot a good thing. The job that's coming open will pay a seven-figure salary. It will be a high-profile gig, featuring lots of travel around the planet, to any number of garden spots. And if the NHLPA's recent history is any indication, it will end with a generous golden parachute, permitting the ex- executive director to spend a few years on sabbatical, at the players' expense, training for a marathon, or working on his memoirs, or just watching his family grow up.

Not a bad job, all in all - except that attracting a quality candidate, to work within a cumbersome, lumbering structure, in an office with the NHLPA's tendency to devour its own, may prove difficult. For starters, that candidate will need to find a way of working with Ian Penny, the interim executive director. Penny has stated that he isn't interested in leading the group - same as interim ombudsman Buzz Hargrove - but neither has offered to step down and remove himself from the organization either.

In the aftermath of Saskin's departure back in 2007, the NHLPA introduced a complex new hierarchy - the checks and balances that so many player reps talked about this past week - to ensure that there wouldn't be a repeat of the e-mail scandal that ultimately saw Saskin shown the door.

Most organizations have a top-down leadership structure - with the man in charge delegating authority where appropriate. The new NHLPA is a sideways model - with Kelly reporting to an advisory board, an executive board as well as an ombudsman, vetting all his decisions.

Predictably, it hasn't work all that smoothly. As Vincent Damphousse, a former member of the NHLPA executive suggested this week, it may need to be amended to find some sort of middle ground - between the all-powerful, dictatorial style of some of Kelly's predecessors and the handcuffs that the current model has in place.

For the search committee, the other important issue will be determining leadership philosophy. Kelly was a moderate, someone who judiciously tried to pick his fights with the league. If the NHLPA opts for someone with a more hawkish approach, that could make the next couple of years very interesting.

The players need to be aware that some of the NHL's small-market owners are spoiling for a fight as well. They see the escalating salary cap - and the minimums that they must spend now, compared to the pre-lockout days - and chafe at that unexpected development.

Other owners see guaranteed player contracts as a potential target in the next round of talks - and dream about the possibilities of an NFL-style system, in which unproductive players can be jettisoned, with a minimal amount of difficulty.

In short, there is an undercurrent of discontent on the owners' side too, in the same way that some players were unhappy with the heavy salary claw backs they paid to the escrow fund this past year.

What needs to happen in the next 24 months or so is for the leadership on both sides to acknowledge that while the current collective bargaining agreement isn't without its shortcomings, the alternative - another potentially devastating work stoppage - is far worse, and one that could undermine the business of hockey in its weaker markets in a meaningful way.

On the other hand, if contraction is what they want - and there are supporters for a more compact 24-team league out there - then permitting tension between the two sides to escalate is the absolute way to go. Suddenly, the bankruptcy hearings in Phoenix could become nothing more than a footnote to a larger culling of the NHL herd.

And maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

 

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