Players' next choice will have impact on the game

DETROIT -- If there is a less interesting story to the vast majority of hockey fans than the trials and tribulations of Ted Saskin and the NHL Players' Association, we don't know what it is.

That doesn't mean it's unimportant -- just uninteresting.

And we're sure the 10 or 15 hockey fans who've been following this story of how power corrupts even the nicest people weren't at all surprised to learn late Thursday that, after a conference call involving team player reps, Saskin was given the heave ho.

How much money Saskin eventually gets from the union or has to pay back to the players is of interest only to the accountants and lawyers who will get rich overseeing the mess.
But what is of critical importance -- and the one thing that may ultimately have an impact on the game and, hence, the average fan -- is what's next for the poor players' association?

Or rather, who's next?

In the coming weeks and months, the players are first going to have to try and figure out what they are and then, more importantly, find someone who can lead them into that identity. Because, right now, they have the identity and direction of a one-celled organism.

A former NHL player with long and strong ties to the players' association called the brief-but-ugly Saskin era "the darkest days in the history of the players' association." It is a strong statement given the shadow cast over the union by its first leader, Alan Eagleson. But for all of Eagleson's faults, and his peculiar relationships with owners and general managers, he actually built something -- the union itself. Saskin merely tore it apart.

"You learn from your mistakes and we made some mistakes. You don't learn from doing things right, that's for sure," Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios, one of the catalysts to challenging Saskin's reign, told reporters Friday morning. "We took things for granted because things had gone so smoothly [under] Bob Goodenow. But now, we're going to do things right, and I think everybody's aware that that's what it will take to get us back to being a strong union like we were before."

Many names will surface in the coming days, from agents to former players to those wholly outside the game, like former Toronto Blue Jays boss Paul Beeston.

Here's hoping the NHLPA takes a good, hard look at who that person will be as it will say much about the future of the association and, by extension, the future of the NHL.

There will be much debate about what kind of person should be the next head of the NHLPA. Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz has already said he'd sooner sell his team than fight with another union leader like Bob Goodenow, the head of the players' association who was toppled by Saskin during the lockout. And while the prospect of the Blackhawks in someone else's hands is enticing enough to lobby for a Goodenow look-alike, it's probably not the best thing going forward.

Still, that may be a bone of contention for some players. Many of them believe they need a street fighter like Goodenow to compensate for Saskin, whose relationship with the league (especially deputy commissioner Bill Daly) made many players uncomfortable (the fact that relationship was the catalyst to end the lockout is neither here nor there at this point in time).

Some will suggest the players need a union specialist, perhaps someone from one of the powerful labor groups in either the United States or Canada. Yet, the players are unionists in name only, and the need for a specialist in negotiating a collectively bargained contract has been minimal since the Eagleson days. This is a group of players, after all, that is now in a partnership with owners, divvying up revenues that should climb to about $2.3 billion this season.

"They've got to be qualified and it has to be someone that you can trust. That's probably the two biggest things, at least in my opinion," Chelios said.

It seems clear, then, that the next leader of the NHLPA must be someone who knows the game -- not necessarily a former netminder with a law degree, although there are plenty of those around; but someone who will immerse himself in the game, the culture of the players, the nuances of the sport. This person must also be someone who has a keen understanding of how to take that knowledge and marry it with the marketing and growth of the game, because, as the game grows, so too does the financial stability of the players and the union itself.

This will be keenly important moving forward because the owners don't really like the current collective-bargaining agreement. It puts their GMs in an untenable situation, trying to manage the salary cap against the declining age of free agency, and they'll be looking to try and make changes. Similarly, there is a feeling among many players that the current "partnership" is more like master and stable hand. The new NHLPA leader must correct that power imbalance.

This new leader, whoever he or she might be, must be able to work with ownership to effect change without having the sport further decimated by work stoppages and ugly negotiations, the kind that scuttled the 2004-05 season and cost the game its integrity.

It's a tall order to be sure. Here's hoping the players get it right.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.