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Friday, October 30, 2009
It's official: Union hits rock bottom

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

If you happened to be in downtown Toronto on Friday and saw a big office building meandering its way down Bay Street, banging off streetlights and crosswalks headed toward Lake Ontario, that would have been the offices of the NHL Players' Association.

Truly and without question, the union representing some 740 professional hockey players is now a rudderless ship.

Friday's resignation of general counsel and interim executive director Ian Penny, along with three members of the six-person advisory board (at least some of the remaining three are expected to resign in the coming days), leaves the NHLPA adrift with its future uncertain.

Even the union's outside labor counsel, Paul Cavalluzzo, resigned, citing concerns over ethical matters that have come up within the union over the past several weeks.

All of which raises the question: Who's in charge?

"The answer is nobody," one person close to the situation told ESPN.com on Friday evening.

"It's a farce," one top agent wrote via text message.

And so, it has come to this.

In the wake of the middle-of-the-night fiasco that led to the firing of former executive director Paul Kelly and the questions about how that firing came to be, the players' association appears to have embarked on the primitive "scorched earth" plan of moving forward.

They wanted a clean slate, and they've got it.

Oh, there are a few hanging on, such as ombudsman Buzz Hargrove. But a four-player committee, which was recently formed to look into the handling of the Kelly dismissal and other issues within the offices of the NHLPA, has told Hargrove essentially to stop doing his job until they can figure out what he was doing. The six divisional player representatives have also been told to stand down while the committee figures out who was doing what to whom.

So, what exactly will Nicklas Lidstrom, Mark Recchi, Rob Blake and Chris Chelios do other than rue the day they were tabbed to look into this mess? In the short term, they have to decide how to handle the sudden leadership vacuum at the union offices. They can wait and do nothing until the 30 player representatives next meet by phone Nov. 9, or they can appoint an interim executive director.

They don't really have the mandate to do that, but as one source put it, these are "extraordinary" circumstances, and to do nothing for the next 10 days would be bad. Mike Ouellet, the union's chief of business affairs who was one of the few left standing, could do the job until the player reps make a plan, a source said.

But that just leads to the mother of all questions now facing this beleaguered union: What then?

There seem to be two clear options for the players.

First, they can begin to pick up the pieces of their torn association and begin the search for both a new executive director and new general counsel. That means trying to find competent individuals who would leave what one assumes would be high-paying jobs to take over a union that has just set itself ablaze with infighting and internal politicking. That should be easy … or not. They must find those individuals and hope they can work together as the clock ticks inexorably toward the end of the current collective bargaining agreement.

Even if the players extend the current CBA to the end of the 2011-12 season, something recent events would almost certainly force them to do whether they want to or not, is it realistic to expect them to hire competent people and hope to get them up to speed so they don't get eaten alive in negotiations with the league?

Agents, players and former members of the players' union who have spoken to ESPN.com in recent days are skeptical that it can be accomplished. Indeed, the owners must be watching the PA's disintegration, rubbing their hands with glee and champing at the bit to get back to the table.

The other option for the players would be dramatic but may, in the end, be the most rational of all paths: bringing back Kelly. The players hired the Boston lawyer after a lengthy search almost two years ago. He seemed to have struck a balance between working with the league and not being a patsy for the owners.

Did he have flaws? Kelly quickly came to be at odds with Penny, the advisory board and the union's ombudsmen (Eric Lindros and his successor, Hargrove), as well as the six divisional player representatives, all believed to be loyal to Penny and Lindros. But with those personalities out of the picture, or soon on their way out, the players must seriously consider returning to the man many believed was the right choice to lead them into the future.

Assuming the players could find a new general counsel with whom Kelly could work, it's not a stretch to suggest the players would be in a far better position than trying to find two brand-new individuals and hope they form a strong negotiating team.

Sources tell ESPN.com that Kelly would indeed consider returning to the job he was hired to perform. Perhaps as important, the staff that was loyal to Kelly, who either were terminated or left during the bitter battle between Penny and Kelly, might also consider returning if they were available. That group, which includes Glenn Healy, Pat Flatley, cap specialist Bob Lundquist and marketing and sponsorship executive Kevin Lovitt, would instantly help repair the internal structure of the union.

Would it seem strange to return Kelly to the fold after all this? Sure.

But in a story that has been nothing but strange from the beginning, it couldn't be any odder than watching that office building careen through downtown Toronto, bouncing off walls, headed into open water without any discernible hand on the tiller.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.