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Lawyer Paul Kelly speaks after being named as the Executive Director of the National Hockey League Players Association during a news conference in Toronto Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Lawyer Paul Kelly speaks after being named as the Executive Director of the National Hockey League Players Association during a news conference in Toronto Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Stephen Brunt

Kelly on NHLPA hotseat Add to ...

It's not the best time to again be devouring their own.

Whether you like it or not, even if you plug your ears and avert your eyes every time someone mentions hockey and organized labour in the same sentence, most every fan is familiar with the fractious history of the NHL Players' Association, with the coups that in turn toppled executive directors Alan Eagleson, Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin. The last two were directly related to the 2004-05 lockout, to the ugly rifts that all but broke the union, and to the finger-pointing that followed what was an unequivocal defeat.

Now, during a time of relative peace, it seems those old wounds have not yet healed.

The association's executive board will meet this weekend, and one major item on the agenda will be a report presented by NHLPA ombudsman Buzz Hargrove. The report will go a long way toward determining the future of Paul Kelly as the union's boss. A lawyer who first came to prominence in the hockey world as Eagleson's prosecutor in Boston, Kelly was hired to put the NHLPA back together, to regain the players' faith, and to create some healthy distance between the owners and their employees.

Goodenow was deposed because he lost the players' support during the great labour war, and Saskin was fired because he became way too cozy with the league hierarchy way too quickly (not to mention spying on players' e-mails). Kelly was sold as just the man to take a hard line with ownership, to hold them to their promises of a business "partnership" with the players, while at the same time avoiding a confrontation without an acceptable exit strategy.

He has said all the right things. But the resignation of Eric Lindros as the NHLPA's ombudsman last February, and a letter Lindros sent detailing his grievances with the union leadership, was the first sign that all was not well.

At least in the eyes of some.

There are suggestions that Kelly is in trouble for not taking a hard enough line (suggesting in one interview, for instance, that his job in the next contract negotiation was to avoid a lockout rather than to secure the best possible deal for the players). But many people inside and outside the NHLPA's membership are pointing fingers directly at Lindros (and his parents) now, suggesting that he is the driving force behind what appears to be a budding insurrection.

Hockey fans can be forgiven for not caring about any of that. Battles among millionaires don't exactly tug at the heartstrings, especially at a time of real economic woes for real people.

But that said, anyone who is interested in a resolution of the Phoenix debacle that would result in a seventh NHL franchise in Canada, or who would like the pros to continue playing in the Olympic Games after 2010, has a vested interest in who is leading the PA.

In terms of the Coyotes, the players ought to have a vote (since their compensation is tied directly to overall league revenues), and for the Olympics, they'll wield significant influence, especially given the general ambivalence that seems to surround participation in the Sochi Games of 2014.

It matters in both cases who is running the show, and what kind of organization the NHLPA has become.

How is the players' voice going to be heard, though, if they can't stop fighting among themselves?

There's nothing wrong with democracy. A little more dissent at key points in its history would have changed the NHLPA for the better. Tough questions ought to be asked of the union's leadership, transparency ought to be demanded, and a higher level of engagement among all players would all but eliminate the possibility of repeating past sins.

But it's impossible to function in a state of uncertainty, anger and turmoil, perpetually falling back on old grudges and restaging old battles.

The most powerful players' union in sport can be found in Major League Baseball. Virtually all of the advances for professional athletes were won by that union. It has a nearly undefeated record in its confrontations with ownership, and yet when the time came to back off a bit, in 2002, it did that too.

In its long history, the MLBPA has had only two leaders: Marvin Miller, its founding executive director, and his successor, Donald Fehr, who is about to step down. Both were right for the times, both were supported by their membership even through tense work stoppages that might have blown a weaker group apart, and the ballplayers prospered.

That's not a coincidence.

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