The NHLPA meetings
The black sheep
I spent close to four hours standing outside of a conference room last Friday afternoon, listening to eight or nine NHL players address the media and reveal their hopes and ideas for the NHLPA's next chapter.
Two years earlier, and indeed long before that, had one attended these proceedings, they would have been listening to a much different group of players outline the union's business, a band that from 1998 to 2006 was led by NHLPA president Trevor Linden.
The list of previous presidents includes Bob Pulford, Bobby Clarke, Tony Esposito, Bryan Trottier and Mike Gartner. Given the opinion of the position now, however, by those currently in charge, it's quite likely Linden is the last one we'll ever see.
Two years earlier, and indeed long before that, the president was the union's go-to active player, the one leading the charge toward whatever goal and/or resolution the union pursued. Beginning sometime this season, regardless of how the hierarchy is remodelled, it's a safe bet there won't be a president in the constitution.
Linden steered the union ship during what was the first cancellation of an entire season due to a labour dispute by a North American major professional sport. Last week, in four hours of sometimes meandering statements on the direction of the union, his name wasn't mentioned once.
Toward the end of the afternoon, after a lot of positivity from all concerned, I asked Mathieu Schneider how someone like Linden fit into the picture as a dues-paying member of the reborn NHLPA.
"Chris Chelios has had conversations with him," he began, before pausing.
"And you know Billy Guerin — we’ve been good friends with Billy for years, on the U.S. team and things like that, and there was friction there for a long time."
Guerin was one of six NHLPA vice-presidents working with Linden during the lockout, someone who was named along with Ted Saskin, Linden, Vincent Damphousse and Bob Boughner in a lawsuit brought by Chelios and the other "dissidents" in October, 2006. (It was dismissed on jurisdiction a few months later and hasn't been heard from since.)
And then there were the reports from PA meetings during the lockout that Guerin and Tie Domi had nearly come to blows.
Yes, there was friction. For a long time.
"I think that the message that we send them here, we want to send to those guys is 'we need to get through this together,'" Schneider said. "We don’t want to leave anyone on the outside, this needs to be a true democracy."
Linden, Guerin and others reported to have been involved when the PA began to acquiesce in the summer of 2005, were not at the three days of meetings in Toronto, however. And it really isn't known just how big a group that is.
"Mistakes were made and I think players have admitted that," Schneider continued. "This Sheila Block report, there are regrets from players who wish they had done things differently, and you know, to me, that says an awful lot. They were under incredible amounts of stress; they were probably not qualified to negotiate a CBA, or a deal of that magnitude, and they had the weight of 700 guys on their shoulders. I wish they would have gotten outside help back then, but they didn’t, and for whatever reason, but here we are now, we’re in a great position, and we’re in a position to say guys, we’re all a part of this and were in this together."
But, I asked, is the reason we're seeing so many younger players move into player rep roles because older guys, like Linden, like Guerin, don't want to be part of this?
"I think, you know, Chris and I were talking about it, and you know he asked me if I wanted to be a player rep in Anaheim, and he said he’s not going to do it in Detroit, he’d like Dan Cleary to do it," Schneider said. "Guys that are going to be around for years and that can pass the torch down to the next generation of players. You know, there’s certainly a generation gap between guys like myself and Chris, and you know the 19- and 20-year-olds that come into the league. We’d like to think that there’s not but there absolutely is. And to have guys that have been in the league you know 15 years and guys that are going to be in the league another 10 to maintain that kind of continuity is going to be important going forward. For me, I’ll have discussion with guys in Anaheim, but I would love to see a young guy be a player rep there, they have some great young players there. ... They could certainly have an impact on the way things are going."
Is this still a group divided? Is a large portion of the membership not here because they simply don't want to be?
"I think it’s possible, because obviously I haven’t had a chance to talk to everyone," Schneider said, "but I think when guys get to camp and learn what has gone on over the summer and the direction now we’re heading in, I don’t see how you could not want to be a part of it. You know, at the very least, be a proud member. Things are going really well, you know, there’s always going to be a few guys that aren’t happy, but I think we’re going to have as close to 100-per-cent support as we’ve ever had."
Schneider's a stand-up guy, and he obviously wasn't going to "name names" or point fingers at fellow players over things that happened two years ago. Why would he? There's nothing to be gained by it and the entire tenor of the day was about moving forward.
Still, it was worth one more question.
The only reason I ask [about Linden], I said, is that I know Trevor was so well respected and such a big part of the union for so long, and now, well, he’s sort of in no man’s land. I just wonder, have you thought about bringing him back or saying something publicly about what his place is?
"I don’t anticipate the organization making a statement," Schneider said. "Other than: I think we’re going to make it extremely clear to him that we welcome him in the organization. You know, going forward, the player reps, the 30 reps are going to be the entire executive board, with the new constitution, and that’s going to create a truer democracy among the players. It’s going to be truly a union for the players, and I don’t think that’s been the case over the years."
In other words, no more president, no more hierarchy. Mistakes were made, certainly, and that's the end of the way it was.
What's to be done with the black sheep?
"To be questioned for your motives and for your integrity has been, I guess, difficult. We've tried to do what's right for the 700 guys and put our association in the right direction."