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Mark Napier, the NHL Alumni Association’s executive director, is dealing with concerns of a group of ex-players. (RYAN EMBERLEY/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Mark Napier, the NHL Alumni Association’s executive director, is dealing with concerns of a group of ex-players. (RYAN EMBERLEY/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

David Shoalts

NHL Alumni Association is fraying at the seams Add to ...

The NHL Alumni Association calls itself “Hockey’s Greatest Family,” but it is far from hockey’s happiest family.

A lot of former players feel like poor relations, complaining about a lack of communication and support from an association they say only concerns itself with a small group of members in the Toronto area.

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“It’s become a Toronto clique,” said former Buffalo Sabres star René Robert, who was one of the founders of the alumni association in the mid-1990s and served as its executive director until he resigned several years later. “We’ve got guys who don’t know we exist. They’ve never been contacted and don’t have a clue what this is about.”

A group of ex-players is unhappy enough to have sent the association’s executive director, Mark Napier, a five-page list of questions concerning various matters.

The group wants answers about what it sees as a lack of transparency in the non-profit organization’s operations, about how the members of its board are selected, about fiscal accountability, about a perceived lack of effort in developing education and career programs and what is seen as the lack of a voice from the members in how the association is operated. (For example, while any member of the alumni association can run for election to the board of directors, only the board itself, and not the members, can vote on new directors.)

“We don’t have any say in the structure of the organization and we want to know why,” said Kurt Walker, a former Toronto Maple Leafs winger who lives in Atlanta and is acting as the spokesman of the group.

Napier and former Maple Leafs defenceman Mike Pelyk, the chairman of the alumni association’s board of directors, acknowledge there are problems in communication and it can appear to be Toronto-centric. But both say many of the problems are beyond the association’s control.

The list of questions from Walker is the second one he has received this year, Napier says, with a similar query coming earlier from Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni Association president Kevin Maguire.

Napier, who told Walker he would respond within two weeks to the latest questions, said: “The majority of these questions have already been answered … in our newsletter to all of our membership.”

The operation of the NHL Alumni Association is open to the scrutiny of any member, Napier says, and is willing to talk to any of them about it, either in person or by telephone or e-mail.

“If you don’t live in New York or Toronto, you’re not getting that information,” said former Maple Leafs blueliner Jim Dorey, who lives in Kingston. “I know they promote we’re a big ‘family’ but, obviously, that’s not happening.”

According to Napier, the board is made up of nine members plus an executive committee under chairman Pelyk. The nine directors include two representatives from the NHL and two from the NHL Players’ Association, who are all former players.

The board elects its own directors, Napier says, and any association member can apply for a position. The terms are for three years, but if no one applies to be a director, an existing director can be reappointed for another term.

“They should be elected by the players,” said Robert, a view that was echoed by several of his peers.

But Pelyk said giving each member a vote is “unwieldy” and defended the idea that any member can run for a place on the board of directors. The problem, he says, is that while many complain about how the board operates, few volunteer to be a director, which is an unpaid position.

“When we have a position open, we’re going to make everybody we can possibly make aware there is a position available,” Pelyk said. “We’ll see how many people want to stick their nose in and do the [job] for nothing. One of the big issues is it takes a lot of time.

“This is not something you can just flip the page and go back four months later and say, ‘Okay, yeah, I’m a board member, what do I do now?’”

Another of the dissident group’s complaints is some alumni association members have not been informed of improvements to the NHL’s notoriously poor pension plan – particularly what’s called the “senior player benefit,” which adds as much as $1,400 per year for every year of service to pensions for players 65 and over thanks to $6-million (U.S.) contributed equally every year by the NHL and NHLPA.

The group also raised concerns that the alumni association is slow to respond to members seeking help from the NHL’s emergency assistance fund, which provides financial help to former players in need.

However, Napier says, the senior-player benefit – which is due to increase because the $6-million in funding that starts this year is a jump from the $4-million under the NHL’s previous collective agreement – is under the control of the NHL Pension Society, not the alumni association.

The NHL handles the communications for it, as well as the emergency fund, which it also controls.

Napier, who took over from Brian Conacher as executive director in 2004, says a big problem in contacting former players is that, due to privacy reasons, neither the NHLPA nor the NHL hands over contact information to the alumni association, which operates independently from the union and the league. He also says many ex-players are not diligent about passing along address changes.

The NHL Alumni Association’s quarterly newsletter was put into electronic format because too many of the print editions were being returned when members did not update addresses. Walker and other alumni say many of the older members do not use computers; Napier counters that any member who asks can still receive a printed version of the newsletter.

The NHL Alumni Association passes along the information on the pension and other matters when it can, Napier says, but he acknowledges there are communication problems because the alumni is a big family scattered across North America.

Anyone who played at least one NHL game is eligible to be a member, and it is estimated there are 3,400 potential members for the alumni association’s 28 chapters.

“We have information on 2,200 of them,” Napier said. “It’s not easy to call all 2,200 every week and let them know what we’re doing.”

Pelyk says in the absence of automatic contact from the NHL or NHLPA on potential members, it is up to the retired player to contact the association.

“I’ll bet you we don’t have half the names we should on our contact list,” he said, adding the alumni associations for the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have the same problem. “The door is open, you can call any time you want … but if you can’t make the effort, what can we do? We do the best we can, but it’s not like we have unlimited resources.”

Walker and other alumni say there is a feeling among them that the alumni association has turned into something that caters to a small group based in the Toronto area. They say too many events, such as the annual dinner and a golf tournament, are only held in Toronto and few members outside the area are invited to attend.

As for funding, no dues are charged to members, with the association raising its operating expenses through sponsorships with companies such as the Bank of Nova Scotia and PokerStars.com.

“One of the toughest parts of this job is to raise enough to cover our operating costs,” Napier said.

As for the charges the association can appear Toronto-centric, “It’s always been an issue,” he said, adding the majority of corporations that want to be associated with former NHL players are located in Toronto, as are a large number of alumni.

While some of the members don’t think change will happen quickly, former Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings defenceman Ian Turnbull, who now lives in L.A., hopes news of their discontent will get it started.

“If nobody tells you what’s available [in alumni programs], there is something wrong there,” he said. “That is the essence of what this is about. Hopefully, this turns out to be a rallying point.”

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