Players feel they've got their union back


By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

A couple of days before the NHL Players' Association's fateful vote to suspend executive director Ted Saskin with pay, ESPN.com asked one player rep about allegations Saskin had been involved in tampering with players' e-mails.

The rep responded with a vacant look and then muttered that he'd heard rumors about it some months ago. Then, he admitted he was just a hockey player and all of this investigation stuff was just a bit much.

There's no need to identify the player or the team, but it serves to reinforce the idea that of the more than 700 members of the players' union, there are many who are ill-informed about what is a multimillion-dollar business.

It goes a long way to explaining why players like Mathieu Schneider, Chris Chelios and Dwayne Roloson were for months considered pests at best and pariahs at worst by many of their colleagues in the union as they pressed for an investigation into how Saskin was hired and how he was conducting business.

Although it took a lot of effort and more than a little heartache, those players might now go down as the most important members in the history of the union and now represent a significant majority of players.

With Saskin and senior director Ken Kim on paid leaves in anticipation of their dismissal, Schneider hopes the level of both interest in the union's machinery and education about the group's machinations will rise.

Once Saskin took over shortly after the end of the lockout in the summer of 2005, Schneider said there was a "huge conflict of interest" regarding information posted on the players' Web site, one of the main tools for staying informed on association matters.

"Things weren't getting posted," he said in an interview this week. "We had to call player reps one by one. I can say it was fought every step of the way."

Schneider doesn't spare the players themselves from blame in what some have described as an embarrassing situation. "I think players will pay more attention to [the union] now," Schneider said. "Before the lockout, guys just got fat and lazy. At the end of the day, that's what cost of us a year of hockey."

The 37-year-old New York native recalls becoming a player rep when he was playing for Montreal, the team that drafted him in 1987. He got involved because veteran Ryan Walter took him under his wing and explained the role of being a player rep.

"More of that needs to happen," Schneider said.

The relationship between the union and the owners always has been a delicate one, but with the current collective-bargaining agreement essentially formalizing a partnership that should have been entrenched from the beginning, the need for a strong union is crucial to making that partnership work.

And the better that partnership works, the better the product for the fan. At least, that's the theory.

"Being a player rep is probably a bigger role now than in the past because of the revenue sharing," Schneider said.

Still, he said he was pleased to see that 28 of 30 teams voted for the independent investigation into Saskin's hiring and other union matters, and Schneider believes it's a crucial first step back to respectability.

"I think it's the first time since the Bob Goodenow hiring [in 1992] players have a sense that we're in control of our own union right now," Schneider said. "We should be proud of where we're at."