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A PALACE COUP Add to ...

eduhatschek@globeandmail.com

Sometimes, the National Hockey League Players' Association makes a change at the top because of outright malfeasance - Alan Eagleson, as a case in point.

Sometimes, it is about personal style and a fractious leadership style that rubbed too many people the wrong way - Bob Goodenow step to the front of the line.

Sometimes, it is about process and the failure to follow it properly - hello Ted Saskin.

But on Sunday night and into yesterday morning, when the NHLPA's executive board dismissed Paul Kelly as executive director, it is hard to see the move as anything except a palace coup - a grab for power, fought between two factions within the organization that had been at odds since this past February, or when Eric Lindros resigned as ombudsman, reportedly because there weren't enough contentious issues to arbitrate.

In one corner in this fight, you'll find Lindros, who currently has no official standing in the organization, plus his replacement as "interim ombudsman" Buzz Hargrove, along with Halifax labour lawyer Ron Pink, and lawyer Ian Penny, a holdover from the Goodenow era who'd received a lucrative multiyear contract extension from the NHLPA executive board during last June's meetings in Las Vegas.

In the other corner, there was Kelly, director of player affairs Glenn Healy and assistant director of player affairs Patrick Flatley. With Kelly out and Flatley reportedly having resigned, it is hard to imagine Healy staying on beyond the day - or week.

And to what end are these changes coming now, with the 2009-10 season just around the corner and players muddling along just fine thank you?

Is it because Kelly had dinner one too many times with commissioner Gary Bettman? Is it because Kelly tried to make a flawed document - the new collective agreement, negotiated at the cost of the 2004-05 NHL season - work as well as it could for the players.

Kelly, remember, came on after Saskin's departure. He was hired after a lengthy search that included Pink, a Halifax lawyer that ultimately was not considered as a finalist for the position.

Kelly's reputation as a crime-buster in Boston - and his fresh voice from the outside, with no loyalties to anyone in the organization - clearly enhanced his candidacy. His lack of experience in running a union notwithstanding, Kelly had seemingly done well in healing the fractures within a dysfunctional players association that had ceased to be a viable organization.

Or he did until the rebel group challenged his leadership.

Remember, too, that Kelly inherited the collective agreement. Think back to those negotiations that eventually killed a full NHL season. Midway through the year, Goodenow put a major concession on the table - a 24-per-cent, across-the-board rollback in player salaries - to address the NHL's No. 1 objection, which was that players were receiving in salary (by their estimates) 76 per cent of all revenues generated by teams. It wasn't enough for Bettman, who wanted cost certainty, a mechanism that would directly tie player costs to overall revenues.

Ultimately, that is the deal the two sides struck - over Goodenow's behind-the-scenes objections.

That is how Saskin came to power - he negotiated the final terms of the agreement for labour peace with Bill Daly, who was promoted to deputy commissioner as a result of what appeared to be a clear league victory in the negotiations. Bettman certainly earned the concession that mattered most to him - and since then, players annually receive in the neighbourhood of about 56 per cent of league revenues as their share of the pie.

The system is regulated by an escrow process in which a portion of player biweekly paycheques are withheld until the final accounting is done in the off-season. Escrow proved to be a relatively painless process until last season, when - for a period of time - the monies withheld were as high as 25 per cent of the players' cheques because of the tanking world economy.

Again, not Kelly's fault - it was the system he inherited. Nor did the new system prove quite as punitive financially as some suspected. The players received far greater flexibility of movement through enhanced unrestricted free agency. Every July, teams continue to throw millions of dollars at players who hit the open market. This year, even in the throes of a recession, Marian Hossa received a 12-year deal worth $62.8-million (all currency U.S.). Brian Gionta got $25-million over five years. Stupid money, really, much of it paid on front-loaded contracts, which is the new way teams, agents and players have discovered to circumvent the collective agreement's more restrictive provisions.

And when a team failed to follow the letter of the agreement - as did the Chicago Blackhawks with their offer-sheet fiasco just before July 1 - the NHLPA was quick to jump in with a grievance. All of a sudden, Kris Versteeg, Cam Barker and others became far wealthier because the Blackhawks were unwilling to risk losing an arbitration case and having them potentially walk away for nothing.

Moreover, Kelly's group, with Healy mostly leading the charge, had taken a far broader interest in player safety issues and in enhancing the quality of the on-ice product. They also sided publicly with the move to shift the money-losing Phoenix Coyotes to Southern Ontario, on the grounds that if the players and owners were really, truly partners, then it was up to the league to maximize its revenue potential - and anyone with half a brain in his head can conclude that the Toronto/Hamilton/Kitchener axis would be far more profitable than to pour another $30-million down the drain this year in that money pit known as the Coyotes.

Unless the executive board can cite some, as yet-to-be-publicized grievance against him, you'd have to think Kelly accomplished a fair bit in 22 months on the job.

About the only hope now is that the executive board does the right thing and conducts a full and independent search for a replacement - and doesn't simply turn to the rabble-rousing crew that showed Kelly the door.

If the NHLPA were a hockey team, you'd have to conclude there is only one possible course of action now: introduce a scorched-earth policy.

Burn it to the ground, start from scratch, boot everybody out the door, and then rebuild the organization, one staff member at a time. Given its history and this latest round of infighting, it seems to be the only way they're going to get it right.

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