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Many writers have opined that the CBA is favorable to the owners, or favorable to the players, or favorable to no one. How many have actually taken the time to slog through all 475 pages of the current agreement? Don't worry. One need read only as far as the CBA Preamble. If what it states isn't true, then the integrity of the whole CBA is problematic. Frankly, it is pretty difficult to come to any other conclusion. The statement that "[t]he Collective Bargaining Agreement...is the product of bona fide, arm's length collective bargaining..." is totally incompatible with the reality of monitored player emails, secret side deals, shredded files, and destroyed computer hard drives.

In light of the ongoing NHLPA controversy, it is no small coincidence the words above from the old union standard are sung to the tune of "Redwing." Outspoken Red Wings player, Chris Chelios, seems determined to find out who the goons, ginks, and company finks were in the NHLPA during the CBA negotiations. And, like a fellow Greek of ancient times, Chelios is a modern-day Diogenes, carrying his lantern in the daylight in search of an honest man. Diogenes never found one, but it appears the NHLPA is on the right road with the selection of Paul Kelly. Further, the leaders in the NHLPA selected him in the correct manner by hiring an independent, outside firm to do the head hunting. Still, one imagines that there are plenty of player agents who would have been more than willing to suggest an agent-friendly executive to smooth the dealings between the NHLPA and the NHL.

Those who can connect the dots shouldn't be surprised that Chelios has served public notice on what he considers undue influence by agents with the union. He named a specific agent. I don't know any of the principals, am not privy to any information, and thus, take no position on the particular person named. However, this I know: agents,despite their inherent benefits to players, can effectively undermine the strength of a players' union and bollix up the works in CBA negotiations when they intermeddle.

When agents negotiate independent player contracts they represent the best interests of their individual client - not the best interests of the players as a whole. That's what the union does, and can do successfully, if it is strong. As a result, excessive agent coziness with players' union officials or owners during the heat of league CBA negotiations is a conflict of interest of monumental proportions. And it undermines the union. Why? Because, many times, it is in an agent's best interests for the union to be weak or, even better, non-existent. Given a strong enough CBA that spells out minimum pay, pensions, profit sharing, and working conditions, there would really be no need for most hockey players to use the services of their own agent (who works on commission) when negotiating their contract. In fact, some legal scholars advocate that sports unions hire and pay for union agents whose only responsibility would be representing players on individual contracts with their team. These representatives would not be required - the player could always retain his own agent. But the big advantage is that the union representative would be privy to all the internal financial data that an outside agent does not - and should never - have. Plus, having a union representative for contract negotiations would be a union service provided to the player. No commission would be charged. Electing union representation for contract negotiations would in no way limit the player's freedom to contract with an outside agent for marketing, investments, and so on.

The current CBA has a league-wide salary cap, which most see as beneficial to the owners. How in the world can a fixed salary cap be beneficial to agents? It would seem that a hard cap makes it more difficult for agents to get the top dollar for their stable of skaters. But, counter-intuitively, a fixed cap can actually create more business for the agent because it assists the agent in recruiting more clients from the limited pool of available players. Even those players destined to make the minimum during their careers will naturally seek out agents whom they believe can deliver the most money from the finite pot of money available. And, whether or not a higher salary is garnered, the agent still collects the commission. At the same time, a hard cap creates great player dissatisfaction with the union from top to bottom of the pay scale. Players blame the union for getting into a bad deal. Those at the minimum or in the middle feel doomed to no significant financial advancement because the elite players will continually negotiate an ever bigger chunk of the cap. The meat-and-potatoes players are also placed under greater performance pressure that may have nothing to do with their contributions on the ice or the expectation of a raise for good performance. If their financial demands become too great when owners are in a bidding war for an elite player, then these good, but not great, players can always be sacrificed and replaced with a cheaper player of comparable talent from next year's crop.

Hard cap, soft cap, or no cap, elite level hockey savants will always command big bucks because their skills are exceptional, they are worth whatever the market will bear, and the demand and competition among owners for their services is intense. But with a hard cap in place, it becomes difficult to push to the next stratosphere of big paydays. Still, the agents can take advantage of this by blaming the union for agreeing to the cap that limits a star's ultimate earning potential. When marquee players decline to get involved in union governance it can significantly weaken the effectiveness of the organization.

Most importantly, while a player may have only one agent throughout his relatively short career, a successful agent can represent several generations of players. Thus, long-standing relationships with owners throughout the league help him recruit more clients. How? It doesn't take too much imagination to believe management might suggest to players those agents with whom they have a congenial business relationship. And, by the same token, if agents were to surreptitiously ingratiate themselves to the owners by getting union officials to cave in to a hard salary cap - well - the loss of sky-is-the-limit wunderkind contracts would more than be made up in additional referrals for lower echelon players. And the biggest plus in such a conspiracy theory is that the union, not the agents, get the blame.

The union deserves a great deal of credit for most of the player benefits and compensation that are now available. In 1957, another Red Wings player, Ted Lindsay, and several others, formed the first player's association. That union was quickly busted when the owners retaliated by sending some union members down to the minors. Player unions can be fragile because active player membership is always in flux. Thus, an independent, strong, honest executive in charge of the day-to-day management of the union is essential. Hopefully, Paul Kelly will institute effective quarantines of confidential information so that agents aren't privy to it and so the only authorized negotiating parties to a CBA - the NHLPA and the NHL, can truly negotiate at arm's length.

"Oh No, You Can't Scare Me I'm Sticking to the Union; I'm Sticking to the Union, Till the Day I Die!"
Filed Under:   Red Wings   NHLPA   CBA   Paul Kelly   NHL   Chelios  
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