The drive to unionize junior-hockey players appears set for collapse, with the executive director of the scandal-plagued Canadian Hockey League Players' Association saying he plans to leave, and its high-profile legal help also quitting.
Late Thursday night, Georges Laraque, the former NHL enforcer, revealed to The Globe and Mail he intends to leave the association as soon as a suitable replacement can be found.
"We need to pass it over to a real union," Mr. Laraque said from Cape Breton, N.S., where he is to attend a meeting with players on Friday. "We've had many unions that want to take it over, and I've decided we'll pass on all the progress we've made. It has to be a real professional that does this."
His sudden decision to leave comes after a brewing scandal that involves a mysterious recruiter, a hired private investigator and allegations a convicted fraud artist is involved with the organization.
The CHLPA cast itself as upholding a noble cause – one focused on negotiating better education packages for players on the CHL's 60 teams – but its approach in becoming certified across the country has prompted more suspicion than solidarity.
Stories emerged of a mystery man approaching teenage players in several markets, handing out CHLPA literature and calling himself Derek Clarke.
That situation played out recently in a northern Saskatchewan parking lot as three members of the Prince Albert Raiders walked out of their home arena and were asked if they would be willing to go to a hotel to discuss some business.
The players took the stranger's pamphlets but immediately handed them over to their team, prompting concern from the leagues.
"Our concern from the outset was finding out more information of who was behind this movement – how this came about, the people involved," explained Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison. "We asked about Derek Clarke and could not find any background information.
"Our first priority is the safety of the players. In that respect, we felt we had to find out who Derek Clarke was."
Doing so wasn't easy. After consulting its lawyers, the CHL hired a private detective, who snapped a photograph outside a Swiss Chalet restaurant of a disgraced former hockey coach and fraudster named Randy Gumbley – a man the players in Prince Albert would later say resembled the one who approached them.
The union claimed this was a case of mistaken identity and accused the CHL of sandbagging them with anti-union dirty tricks on the eve of a key certification vote, namely hiring private gumshoes to sniff around their activities and identify their organizers.
News of Mr. Gumbley's potential involvement prompted immediate repercussions. Two of the law firms providing pro bono advice – Vancouver-based Victory Square and Quebec City's Poudrier Bradet – have severed their relationship with the union.
"Given the context we've decided to withdraw from this brief," said Denis Bradet, a Quebec City lawyer who is listed on the CHLPA's advisory board. "It's a shame for the players, who should have the right to associate themselves in a union."
In light of the growing scandal, the question remained: Who, exactly, is Derek Clarke?
Several reports had emerged on Wednesday that he could be Mr. Gumbley, a former owner of the Streetsville Derbys, an Ontario junior team, who was convicted in 2009 of defrauding the families of several junior-aged players to the tune of $90,000.
Last year, he received a suspended sentence and 18 months probation for selling players and their parents on a European tournament that was never held.
But on Thursday, a different man named Derek Clarke stepped forward to show his identification documents and meet with TSN.
What he didn't provide was any further information as to his background or what his specific role is in the union. Mr. Clarke is listed as Quebec channel manager on the corporate website for JFC Solutions, a telecommunications hardware wholesaler.
His sudden appearance also didn't explain why the players – and Mr. Laraque, in an interview with TVA – identified photos of Mr. Gumbley as Mr. Clarke.
Mr. Laraque later recanted on those statements and told The Globe "I've never even talked to that Randy guy. I've never talked to him, I've never seen him, he has nothing to do with us."
Mr. Laraque, however, pointed out that the CHLPA does do business with Mr. Gumbley's brother Glenn – and the fact that Gumbleys bear a physical resemblance to not only each other but also to Mr. Clarke, which only adds to the confusion.
Glenn Gumbley has helped the association and arranged some of the group's legal staff, Mr. Laraque said.
"The CHL is doing this because they're trying to find a way to stop us and the only thing they could do is tell people we're associated with the wrong people. It's like if we said [convicted pedophile] Graham James is president of the CHL," he said.
The CHLPA later insisted in a press release that Randy Gumbley does not have "any official position" with the union.
But that's not quite the same thing as saying he has no position at all – TVA reported on Thursday evening that he is indeed involved and that his name appears on recruiting materials.
Though Mr. Gumbley is best known for his misdeeds in Ontario, he also has a colourful past in Montreal. According to court records he has faced a raft of lawsuits in Quebec since 1987 and also has a criminal conviction.
Before battles with the provincial power utility and a car financer in the 1990s over unpaid debts, court records show Randy Gumbley was sued in small claims court by a Montreal lawyer in 1987.
Mr. Gumbley filed for bankruptcy in 2000 with his partner – claiming a total of more than $120,000 in debts – with a Mississauga, Ont., address in their paperwork.
Whether Mr. Gumbley is involved or not, one thing that is certain is the resulting kerfuffle has severely damaged the CHLPA's credibility at a delicate time for the union.
On Friday, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Cape Breton Screaming Eagles are scheduled to vote to certify as a CHLPA bargaining unit, making them one of the first teams to join the movement.
Even with all that has gone on, Mr. Laraque still plans to attend, but he isn't optimistic his message will be heard.
"It's still a great cause," he said. "The guys, they need it, to improve their education. I don't want to quit for them, but there are too many things that have been done. That's why it's better to pass [the union] over."