Up to NHL players to transform union after Blackhawks scandal

It now falls on the rank and file of NHL players to determine in what kind of world they would like to live in the wake of the revelations exposing the institutional betrayal of Kyle Beach, who identified himself this week as the “John Doe” at the epicenter of the investigation of the Blackhawks.

It falls on the players themselves — not on Gary Bettman, not on Don Fehr, not on the law firm of Jenner & Block — to determine whether they wish to be a part of a Players’ Association that failed to protect Beach, or to forge a new direction under new leadership whose mission will be to place each union member’s health and safety as its highest priority.

There is no question the Chicago organization and NHL failed Beach, whose allegations of sexual abuse by the club’s then-video coach, Brad Aldrich, were set aside for a more convenient time back in 2010 when the Blackhawks were aiming at their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. That convenient time never quite seemed to come. But let’s face it. The business of business is to protect itself.

Not to conflate the horrifying misfeasance that nearly destroyed Beach’s life with a work of fiction, but after watching episode 9 of season 2 of the HBO Max series “Succession” on Friday, I read a review of the show that could have been contained in the Jenner & Block report on the Blackhawks.

For this is what Scott Tobias wrote for Vulture in October 2019 about the episode detailing the investigation of the cover-up of a cruise-line scandal involving serial sexual misconduct: “That’s … a revealing insight into how executives in a similar situation might look at incidents like this — not through any sense of personal regret or accountability, but as an assessment of damage to the company’s reputation.”

Don Fehr (left) and Kyle Beach (right).
AP, Getty Images

But if the Blackhawks and senior hockey personnel — including the disgraced Stan Bowman, disgraced Joel Quenneville and disgraced Al MacIsaac — were protecting the logo and the brand and the organization’s reputation after initially wanting to eliminate distractions during the Cup finals, then what on earth could the NHLPA have been protecting by remaining silent for so long after the fact?

Fehr, the PA’s executive director, was not in place when the incident occurred and was initially reported to the Chicago hierarchy in May 2010. But, according to the report, Fehr did become aware of the allegations soon after he was hired to run the union that December. He was first contacted by a “confidant” of Beach then months later via email by another “professional acquaintance.”

Fehr, as many interviewed by the Chicago-based law firm, seemed to have a very difficult time remembering what he knew and what he was told by whom. He would not necessarily dispute reports of conversations but could not confirm them. He couldn’t even confirm that conversations occurred or that the email was received.

Maybe those who claimed they couldn’t remember were telling the truth. You and I would probably remember, even years later, if filled in on details of an alleged sexual assault, but the men in this case apparently do not. Maybe they were too busy. Maybe the subject matter was simply deemed too trivial to pursue or retain. Maybe there were other agendas.

But Beach remembers. In an interview this week with groundbreaking TSN reporter Rick Westhead, Beach said, “I know I reported every single detail to an individual at the NHLPA who I was put in contact with after, I believe, two different people talked to Don Fehr.

NHL Jan. 13 start 2020-21 season
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
NHLI via Getty Images

“For [Fehr] to turn his back on the players when his one job is to protect the players at all costs, I don’t know how that can be your leader.”

Beach was scheduled to have separate calls with both Fehr and Bettman on Saturday.

Long before this report was issued, Fehr and the PA have been criticized repeatedly on social media by Daniel Carcillo and Robin Lehner for the union’s failure to protect the physical and mental health of NHL players. The union reflexively defends perpetrators of on-ice violence at the expense of its victims. So it is not clear at all that the PA perceives its singular priority as protecting the players at all costs.

Each generation of NHL players has become less and less engaged with the Players’ Association since the upheaval generated by the 2004-05 canceled season and introduction of the hard cap. Players, of their own choosing, know little of management-labor issues. The constitution has been rewritten under Fehr’s direction to deconstruct player power-centers within the union. The Executive Board consists of the 32 team player-reps and Fehr, a non-voting member.

A conference call meeting of the Executive Board has been called for Monday. If the subject is Fehr’s conduct, the board can go into executive session that would exclude him from the meeting. Fehr, conducting his annual fall tour, met with the Oilers on Friday.

The Blackhawks failed Beach. Bowman failed Beach. Quenneville failed Beach. His teammates failed Beach. The NHLPA failed Beach. Fehr failed Beach.

Now though, the players have the power. The rank and file have the chance to make their voices heard after Beach used his own so eloquently while mixed with tears.

The players now have the opportunity to chart their course and transform their union into one whose priority is to preserve and protect the membership’s mental and physical well-being. We are all watching.

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