It hasn’t been the most tranquil of summers for Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference after a full slate of off-ice responsibilities as the team’s NHL Player Association player representative.
Ference was one of the key point people in the controversial ouster of NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly after a long, late-night advisory board meeting in Chicago last month, and he’s been facing a consistent firing line of tough questions in that aftermath since arriving in Boston for B’s training camp several weeks ago.
The Bruins defenseman joined Matt Stajan, Mike Komisarek and Brad Boyes in forming an investigative subcommittee that interviewed NHLPA office employees and looked into allegations that Kelly had broken the spirit of the NHLPA constitution – and therefore was unfit to lead the body of NHL players. There’s been plenty of details involving the unauthorized acquisition of union meeting minutes and cloak-and-dagger subterfuge to stab Kelly in the back behind the scenes, but — like just about everything in life — there’s seems to be three sides to the situation.
There’s a he said/she said element to the dismissal, of course, but there’s also no denying things were running smoothly under Kelly’s leadership and the NHL was gaining back the popularity it frittered away during the lockout in 2004-05.
The investigation of a Ference-led subcommittee evolved into Kelly’s firing after his largely successful two-year run, and it spurred on the placement of general counsel Ian Penney into an interim leadership position within the players’ union. As with any change of leadership in a position of such high visibility, there’s been plenty of tumult in the aftermath of Kelly’s sacking and the murmurs simply aren’t going away with time. There was an NHLPA-sponsored conference call among players on Monday night to discuss process and actions going forward, and perhaps even a bit of a circle-the-wagons type message.
The pro-Kelly camp claims that the hard-working, no-nonsense, Boston-bred Kelly was railroaded by a group of power-hungry individuals within the union, and that the player reps were hoodwinked into making the ultimate choice of removal.
There were certainly plenty of veteran Bruins players looking for answers to the NHLPA situation when training camp began two weeks ago. The bold move to displace Kelly was another in a long line of borderline embarrassing episodes (Ted Saskin, Alan Eagleson etc.) for the hockey players’ union leadership, and some of Ference’s teammates are clearly upset that such a change in the union’s corner office came without any warning or consultation prior to a bleary-eyed 3 a.m. vote on Aug. 31.
Ference had a closed-door meeting with the rest of his teammates about the Kelly fiasco last week that some sources described as “heated” at points, but the 30-year-old blueliner maintained at Monday’s media day session that the NHLPA issues wouldn’t be affecting the team’s unique chemistry off the ice.
The issues were discussed and differences of opinion were listened to and hashed out, said Ference, but there was clearly a difference of opinion in the way things eventually transpired. There remains a disconnect between the 22 player reps voting to sack Kelly/NHLPA execs still remaining with the union infrastructure, and the rank-and-file players left with the unpleasant feeling that a rug had been pulled out from underneath them without their consent or endorsement.
Ference is doggedly sticking to his guns that the union was justified in dismissing Kelly from its top spot, and that hasn’t been a major talking point among the union’s membership in the B’s locker room.
“There were questions about the timing of it and whether or not we should have waited until [training] camp and we can have a difference of opinion about that,” said Ference. “It doesn’t mean there’s tension or fighting. But the No. 1 thing that’s misrepresented is about whether or not [Kelly] should have been fired.
“The guys that have the facts say it’s not about that, we agree that [Kelly] had to go. It’s more about the timing and the decision to do it in Chicago instead of training camp. We have very good reasons for that and why we couldn’t wait and why it had to happen based on that meeting. But those are topics that we bring up and it’s a healthy thing to do. But these tensions within the team are a fictional report by a sports reporter. It’s frustrating to read. We talk about it in the locker room and it’s like ‘Gee, where is this coming from?’ It is what it is and it’s ridiculous. But I guess some guys are just going to write what they want to write.”
There are heavy indications that fellow veteran players – with Mark Recchi chief among them – will toss their names into the running for the B’s player rep position when it comes up for reelection in the next few weeks. There’s clearly – at the very least – a level of unhappiness with the way the process played out leading to the bloodless coup in the NHLPA offices.
It seems that some of the more influential veterans within the league are beginning to stand up and take notice, and there may be big alterations in the offing when election time hits for the player rep population.
Unsolicited, Ference admitted that there was a difference of opinion with 41-year-old veteran forward Mark Recchi when it came down to process and the unfortunate timing of the decision. But the defenseman said there was accordance on the one bottom line subject: that the move on Kelly had to be made by the NHLPA’s voting body.
Other than that, the Bruins defenseman said any union disagreements had zilch to do with chemistry on the ice or good vibes within the Bruins’ dressing room. That, Ference said, was much more fiction than fact as his team sits on the cusp of an NHL regular season with the highest of expectations.
“We have a reporter out there that’s writing down this stuff and it’s a tad ridiculous,” said Ference. “We have a locker room that’s open and we talk about things, and we can have differences of opinion. But it’s out there and we’re open, and that’s what makes our locker room so open and good.
“But this stuff about [Recchi] confronting [me], and all this other stuff? Rex and I talked about the issues, and the bottom line is that we both agree that Paul Kelly had to go. That’s the stuff that doesn’t get reported. I don’t know if there’s a slanted perspective or some ulterior thing going when the stuff is being written, but the fact is that we do talk about it. It’s healthy to talk about it and we’re men about it. If there’s an issue then we talk about it, put it out in the open and we have good communication about it. Me and Rex talk about this stuff all the time.”
B’s coach Claude Julien was aware of the differing opinions on union matters within the locker room, but didn’t feel like things were going to affect the on-ice chemistry between players arguing over unfair dismissals or advisory boards.
“You can ask those guys those kinds of questions, but for you’ve got to be able to separate things,” said Julien. “You have troubles at home then you don’t bring them to the rink with you.”
It remains to be seen if any cracks suddenly appear within Boston’s team foundation, but the B’s players would do well to keep the off-ice union issues exactly where they currently reside: away from the ice.