By Michael Russo
Good afternoon from Chatteau de Russo, where I’m still laughing at some of Mark Parrish’s locker-room jabs at some of his “teammates” today. Here’s hoping Parrish’s career continues because the locker room’s a funnier place with him around.
Couple other Wild players were at the Octagon camp today that weren’t yesterday. They were Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Colton Gillies and minor-leaguer Jaime Sifers.
Martin Havlat’s been busy tweeting again. He said he was in Chicago over the weekend packing up and went to the Carrie Underwood concert with Mike Fisher. @martinhavlat added, “Back in Montreal now for last 8 days of training before heading to Minny. Can’t wait for camp to start!!”
Schultz, the Wild defenseman entering Year 2 of his six-year deal, was in Chicago on Sunday and Monday attending the NHL Players’ Association meetings. Schultz is the Wild’s player rep, so yes, he was in Sunday night and Monday morning’s 10-hour marathon of a meeting that concluded with the players firing NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly at 3:30 in the morning.
With Schultz’s soon-to-be-two-year-old son Jake sitting on his lap, Schultz talked to me this morning about the decision to fire Kelly, the public relations mess that’s ensued and the chances of another work stoppage when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2011 (or 2012 if the players exercise their option to extend the CBA a year):
Q: How long has the players’ concern with Kelly been going on?
Schultz: It really all started at the PA meetings in Vegas. There were some issues in there and I think it’s been kind of going on for awhile, maybe longer than people knew. We put some checks and balances into place inside the office, they went in, kind of interviewed some people and found some stuff out and it just kind of went from there. There were some big issues in the office. We needed a change. We needed to get somebody different in there, especially with possible CBA negotiations in two years, maybe three. We thought we needed different leadership going forward and that the issues we had to get resolved meant we had to relieve him of his duties and try to look for someone new.
Q: When you say “issues in the office” and “found some stuff out,” can you be more specific because it seems that a lot of your membership doesn’t even understand what was discovered here?
Schultz: Once everything gets settled with him legally, they don’t really want us commenting on exactly the specific issues. … It’s something where I’m sure it’ll come out, but as of now, it’s something we’re keeping under wraps just until everything’s settled with him.
Q: What was that meeting like and what were the issues that caused it to go 10 hours, and kept Paul Kelly outside waiting for several hours?
Schultz: It got very heated at times. There were a lot of lawyers and players in there, and everybody had a chance to talk and give their views. It was pretty heated. There wasn’t much down time. It was a long time, but it didn’t feel like 10 hours. But it was pretty heated for the most part. I mean, it was a big decision, a big decision moving forward. But we had to make it now instead of letting it go on, especially with what’s maybe coming in a few years. We had to make the right decision.
Q: Were you up screaming away – I can’t even picture that?
Schultz: No. I’m pretty good at listening and saying something here or there. But we have some passionate guys, and if guys feel a certain way, guys say it. There are a few guys who are more vocal than others, but for the most part, guys were involved and a part of it.
Q: It seems like the players are gearing up for another fight with the league and want more of a hardliner to negotiate with Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. What are the players’ big concerns heading into the next CBA negotiations?
Schultz: You hear people talking about lengths of contracts with these big guys getting lots of term yet probably not playing out the last four or five years of their deals. I mean, it’s smart. That’s how teams are fitting guys under their cap, so you’ve got to give them credit for that. They’ve found a loophole. I’m sure that’ll be an issue. I know for the players, escrow is a big thing. Basketball, they have a cap on their escrow where they’re only losing 10 percent of their salaries. Last year, it ended up being close to 15-18 percent of our salaries. This year with the economy and sponsorships, it might even be more. It’d be nice to have a cap on that.
Q: How much are you guys worried that the league will go after guaranteed contracts?
Schultz: Bigtime. You see that in other sports where they can just get rid of you. It’s something that would be pretty hard to give up. There are different things that both sides will have to give a little bit to get something done, maybe working on the buyout structure or things like that. It’ll take some time, but it’ll eventually get sorted out.
Q: Let me ask you point blank: The perception out there right now is that your union’s a mess. Is it?
Schultz: I think now we’re better than we were before because we have an office staff in place. Obviously, we’ve lost our Executive Director, but with [General Counsel] Ian Penny, that’s going to be an interim guy that’s been there forever. He’s taking over day-to-day operations. Everything’s going to be fine that way. We have people in all different departments. Just losing our Executive Director doesn’t put us in shambles. I think going forward, people will be excited with moving forward and hopefully all our past issues are gone.
Q: But if you include Penny, you’re about to have your fifth Executive Director since the lockout. Are the players on the same page?
Schultz: We’ve got an advisory board in place and [ombudsman] Buzz [Hargrove], we’ve put all these people in place to help us and make sure there were different checks and balances so if something wasn’t going right, we’d find it and know about it and there’s people to go to. We’ve kind of figured that out. I mean last time, I mean, Ian Penny was there, but we had players, like [former ombudsman Eric] Lindros and these guys running a lot of the stuff. Now we have actually good people in there that can help us go ahead and find a search firm and look for the right guy through recommendations, through a search firm, through different things to try to find the right guy.
Q: Are the reports that Kelly was too chummy with the Commissioner’s Office a real concern of the union?
Schultz: No, I’ve heard that through the media and things like that. Maybe there were concerns going forward with him negotiating and not really being part of the labor side of it. I guess going forward we just thought we needed a different direction in leadership, especially with things coming up in a couple years.
Q: Because it again sounds like the union’s looking to battle the NHL and with the [2004-05] lockout still fresh in everybody’s mind, fans are worried. Could there be another work stoppage in a few years?
Schultz: I don’t think the players want that. From last time, I don’t think that anyone wants a lockout. With what we went through last time, to lose a season like that, to lose any time, was not right. I think we have enough time now that we can get something in place and not have to go through that again for the players, the owners, the fans – everyone. To have another one, I don’t think that can happen.
Q: You’ve been a hockey player your whole life. To be inside these high-powered, extremely important meetings, how fascinating is it to be inside part of something like that and how much have you learned the four years since you’ve become player rep?
Schultz: My wife asked me, ‘Think someone else will want your job this year as player rep?’ I said, ‘Now that I’ve been involved in it since the lockout, I know what’s going on and with negotiations possibly coming, I want to be a part of it and make the right decisions for myself and my teammates.’ Now every team essentially has a vote and say in things. We’ve got to make sure we’re on the same page and our guys believe and go in the same direction. So it’s fun to go in there and listen to high-powered labor lawyers, these big fancy lawyers, describing everything and explaining everything to a bunch of hockey players. They’re very intelligent, so as a hockey player, you’re obviously not at that level. That’s why you have these people. But I’ve learned a ton. They’re good at informing you and keeping you in the loop. Before, with [former Executive Director] Bob [Goodenow], they kind of just did whatever. It was six guys and Bob. Now we’ve got a player from every team in there involved and making the big decisions. It’s fun to be a part of that and know what’s going on. It’s our careers. We’ve got to get more players involved and wanting to be a part of that – more than just coming in and being pissed and wondering why the escrow’s 20 percent. If we have more guys involved and know what’s going on and more guys educated, we can make better decisions.