The Kovalchuk Rejection is the Best Thing to Happen to the Players Union

Gary Bettman (THW/Mike Colligan)

This morning, Jim Neveau wrote an excellent piece on the various dynamics at play in the Ilya Kovalchuk saga that is now entering it’s sixth week.  In it, he likened reports of the NHL investigating previously registered contracts to a ‘Pearl Harbor’ event that could unify the NHL Players’ Association and wake them up from a foggy slumber.  Should that happen, Jim felt that a strong and unified PA could dangerously lead to contentious negotiations when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in just a few short years.  Few would argue that the prospects of another season lost to lockout could be devastating for the sport.

It’s certainly no secret that since the lockout, the NHLPA has been in a state of disarray.  With no clear leadership in place, many feel that hard-nosed adviser Donald Fehr is waiting in the wings as the next union boss.  After the league rejected Kovalchuk’s contract last week, there should have been no doubt that the PA would be filing a grievance on his behalf.  The union has to protect the negotiating rights of it’s members and they simply couldn’t stand by and let the league dictate interpretation of the CBA.

Hockey Night in Canada analyst Cassie Campbell is one of the more astute minds in the hockey world when it comes to recognizing big-picture ramifications, in my opinion.  I’ve had a few conversations with Cassie in the days since the Kovalchuk ruling and she expressed a similar concern over the potential fallout from the contract investigations.  “It’s scary to think about what this means for player contracts moving forward,” Campbell told me.  “When you think about it, if the league takes full reign to reopen and challenge contracts already in place, this becomes a situation much like the NFL where nothing is guaranteed.  Is the league within their rights by doing that? Sure.  But from a player’s perspective, they need to say ‘No’ and get involved in their union or they will suffer.”

At this point, Gary Bettman has his foot on the neck of the players’ union.  His face has been rubbed in the mud over this exploitation of a CBA loophole by agents and general managers, and he’ll certainly take this time to relish in his victory and exude his dominance.  It’s the reason he’s been getting his way for over 17 years, whether your name is Ilya Kovalchuk or Jim Balsillie.

I also spoke with a few legal contacts in recent days, and the collective sentiment among them was amazement at how weak the NHLPA’s fight was on behalf of Kovalchuk.  Most have obviously attributed this to a disorganized union running around with their head cut off, but it begs of question of whether the PA was totally behind this grievance in the first place?

Sure, the union needs to protect the interests and the contract rights of it’s superstar players under the CBA.  Perhaps catering to the Kovalchuk’s of the world who have the ability to sign these front-loaded deals should even be a priority to ensure the best talent remains in the NHL.  But this is also a ‘union’ representing the interests of roughly 700 other players.  Are those players thrilled with the idea of front-loaded contracts taking money from their wallets (through an out-of-whack escrow system) and from their future contracts (just because Kovalchuk’s cap hit would’ve been low, doesn’t mean the Devils would’ve had cash to burn in the years he was making $11.5m)?  It’s one thing for the rich to leverage their bargaining power to steal from the poor, but how long will the ‘little guy’ stay quiet when it’s beginning to cost NHL-caliber players their jobs?

The argument could be made that by poking and prodding the union like he has, commissioner Bettman is simply driving the stake in further between an already divided union.  What else would he rather have than facing off at the bargaining table against a union with a new leader overseeing classes of players already pitted against one another?

As Campbell alluded to in her comments, we shouldn’t be hoping for a weak and debilitated PA heading into battle two summers from now just to avoid conflict and the dreaded ‘L word’.  Despite what everyone is saying, the front-loaded contracts are hardly the biggest dispute in the new CBA.  That loophole will be slammed shut within 5 minutes of negotiations and the focus will turn to far more important issues (such as the escrow headaches).  The world is not about to end, but a strong union is a must to ensure that the rights of ALL players are guaranteed, upheld, and fully represented.

Perhaps in the future we’ll look back on August 9th and Arbitrator Bloch’s decision as a ‘date that lives in infamy’ – a day that finally brought the union together to challenge the balance of power in the NHL.  That would be a good thing.

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