The National Hockey League Players’ Association has relieved Paul Kelly of his duties as executive director less than two years into his tenure. According to many, the NHLPA also may have signed a death warrant for themselves, the NHL and the game of hockey — because Kelly was looked upon as the first “true, clean” leader they ever had.
“This is a very sad day for hockey,” Hall of Fame hockey scribe and former Lawrence Eagle Tribune NHL and Bruins beat writer Russ Conway told NESN.com on Monday. “Unfortunately, the union continues to drink the Kool-Aid.”
Conway — who was responsible for bringing former NHLPA head Alan Eagleson to justice with his best-selling book, Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey — knows the NHLPA inside out, and he is right on the money. Many players claim they are not kept in the loop with regard to what goes on with NHLPA matters — some even acknowledge they really don’t care to know but just want to play hockey. That’s all fine and refreshing to hear to an extent, except when something like this latest NHLPA debacle occurs.
Kelly had been praised for his passion for the game, for the players and for trying to clean up what had been a very troubled and corrupt past. His predecessor, Ted Saskin, was fired for secretly monitoring players’ e-mails, and the NHLPA’s first leader, Eagleson — whom Kelly successfully prosecuted and sent to jail (with Conway’s help) on fraud charges — stole money from the players and the union.
Since Kelly took over on Oct. 24, 2007, the NHLPA appeared to be in harmony, or was at least more harmonious than in the past. But in recent months, a group consisting of the union’s legal counsel — Ian Penny, ombudsman Buzz Hargrove and chairman of the union’s advisory board Ron Pink — built a list of concerns regarding Kelly’s leadership. The purpose of this list was to ultimately convince the 30-member board of player reps to oust Kelly from his position with the union, which they did successfully during a lengthy meeting that ran from late Sunday afternoon until early Monday morning.
The NHLPA executive board made the announcement at their annual meetings in Chicago late Monday morning: “Following the executive board’s review of the overall operation of the NHLPA, it was decided that Paul Kelly should no longer continue to serve as executive director. We appreciate Mr. Kelly’s service to our association.”
The union named Penny as the interim executive director, and a search has begun for a full-time replacement. Sources close to the situation told NESN.com that former NHLPA associate counsel Ian Pulver, Penny and Pink are the leading candidates to take over as executive director. Former ombudsman Eric Lindros, who is rumored to be the driving force behind Kelly’s ouster (because Kelly reportedly forced Lindros to resign in February), is also expected to come back into the fold as well.
Hargrove, Penny, Pink, Pulver and Lindros represent the old guard of the NHLPA, one that was confrontational, hard-lined and more concerned with money than the overall well-being of the union and the game. They come from a time when chaos and greed ruled the players’ association and still believe the union conceded too much after the 2004-05 lockout.
Ironically, Kelly, who has become the scapegoat for those concessions, had nothing to do with negotiating the current collective bargaining agreement, while Penny was one of the main lawyers involved. But this group decided to tarnish Kelly’s image with the players by pointing to what they believe was too cozy a relationship between Kelly and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Hargrove, Penny and Pink also claim that Kelly never made enough effort to get to know the players and members of the union.
According to sources, part of this group’s desire to get rid of Kelly also stemmed from Kelly ordering an internal audit (by a top former FBI forensic accountant) of the players' association's expenses during the previous three years before he took over. That audit was still ongoing prior to Kelly’s dismissal. Sources claim that through the audit, Kelly discovered that then-interim leaders Penny and Lindros were spending millions of dollars of the union’s money. Lindros ended up resigning, but word is, that move fueled this attack on Kelly, and Lindros was very much involved. Kelly also beat out Pink for the executive director job, and the belief is that Pink is still sour over that.
As Ken Campbell of the Hockey News pointed out prior to the firing, this move could be a colossal mistake by the players. Besides his impressive resume, Kelly has been anything but what he is accused of being by the group that forced him out.
In an interview earlier this month, Kelly told NESN.com that one of his favorite parts of the job is meeting with and being with the players. When asked about Kelly, many players that have met him claim he seems very sincere and passionate about his job and the well-being of the players.
Kelly also claimed in that interview that he doesn’t want to see another work stoppage.
“I am determined to use whatever options are available to me to avoid another lockout or a strike,” he said. “You never like to say never, but I realize what damage it would do for the sport and the grief it would cause on the ice and in the stands. We will do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Instead of satisfying the union with that stance, Hargrove, Penny, Pink and Lindros used Kelly’s words against him. They said Kelly should do whatever is necessary to get the best deal for the players and if that means another work stoppage, so be it.
“These guys could really care less about whether the game and the NHL take another PR hit with a work stoppage,” one source told Murphy’s Law on Sunday. “They’re more concerned with making money. They had a cozy setup before Kelly came in and found out what was going on. He has done his best to clean things up and distance the union from its troubled past. Unfortunately, part of that cleaning up should’ve been a housecleaning — because now these guys are conspiring against him. This is simply crazy.”
This same source also said that the majority of the board was unaware of this proposal to oust Kelly until a story by TSN’s Darren Dreger on Thursday night.
“This was just a scheduled meeting to update the players on certain issues and just simple stuff to discuss,” said the source. “Now they come in and probably some of them are not as connected as others, and they could be duped into voting out probably the best leader they’ve ever had.”
Unfortunately, as Conway pointed out, the 30 player reps that voted Kelly out Monday didn’t realize or appreciate what they had in Kelly. A hard-liner will now take over, and the cold war between the NHL and the NHLPA will resume. When the current collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, 2011, fans may be in for some more wrangling between the union and the NHL.