Commentary

Kelly bridging gap between NHL, union

Updated: July 10, 2009, 12:45 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

It might not have been preordained, but it sure is curious that a dogged prosecutor out of Boston named Paul Kelly went after the crooked head of the National Hockey League Players' Association only to assume that very post years later.

And whether or not fate had anything to do with Kelly's unexpected ascension to one of the most important jobs in hockey, he certainly figures to be riding shotgun during some of the most important days in the NHL's long history.

"I think with each passing month, you learn more about the job and the game and the membership and the issues," Kelly told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I would not say that I know everything because I certainly don't. I still do feel like it's pretty new; it's been a little over a year and a half."

[+] EnlargePaul Kelly
Libor Fojtik/Getty ImagesPaul Kelly, right, has tried to open up the lines of communication between the union and Gary Bettman and the NHL.

Kelly took over as NHLPA executive director on Oct. 24, 2007, and is just the fourth man to hold the post since the union formed in 1967.

"We've got a lot on our plate and a lot of major things lying in front of us, including, No. 1, the CBA [collective-bargaining agreement] and the Olympics, World Cup [of Hockey], some difficult issues like drug testing to grapple with," Kelly added. "From that standpoint, there are still a number of challenges that we're still facing."

If it seems Kelly came a little bit from out of left field to head the 720-member union, it is a reflection of the tremendous upheaval the players' association has undergone in recent years.

By the time the NHL's owners locked out the players in fall 2004 and the NHL became the first pro sports league to lose an entire season and playoffs from a labor dispute, the NHLPA was in disarray.

Noted labor hawk Bob Goodenow had essentially been cut off by his own members as they sought to broker a deal with the owners without his input. Goodenow's second-in-command, Ted Saskin, and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly were largely responsible for breaking the labor impasse and constructing the current CBA.

Goodenow resigned in the days after the end of the lockout in the summer of 2005, and Saskin assumed control of the NHLPA. However, questions arose about the process by which Saskin had assumed power, and he later was forced from his post in disgrace after it was revealed he had accessed players' e-mails without authorization.

Embarking on a unique period that saw players' salaries tied to the overall health of the league (the CBA stipulates that players receive a fixed percentage of hockey-related revenues), players formed a search committee and made a surprise choice in Kelly in the fall of 2007.

To those who follow American criminal jurisprudence, Kelly might not have been an unknown: He prosecuted top American Mafiosi and the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, among others. Still, he was a shocking choice for many in the hockey community.

But he had successfully prosecuted former NHLPA head Alan Eagleson for embezzling funds from his own constituents, and Kelly possessed a love of sport and a willingness to accept new challenges, so he was a popular choice among the union's search committee and later with the membership at large.

"I guess when you come into a job like this, you assume that your role is just to kind of represent the players and be a spokesperson for the players, and once you get into the job, you realize it's much, much more than that," Kelly said. "It's dealing with a large number of agents and learning from a large number of agents. It's dealing with owners of 30 different clubs, many of whom have different views and philosophies about the game. It's negotiating with the league on a whole range of issues, and it's dealing with a business component of the sport.

"It's a much more multidimensional role than I think I fully appreciated when I started," said Kelly, a father of four. "That said, I've enjoyed it thoroughly and I have no misgivings. Even though there have been some challenges, I'm enjoying it immensely."

Given his history as both a prosecutor and a founding partner of a Boston criminal defense firm that specialized in white-collar defense and complex civil litigation, Kelly clearly comes from a very different background than his predecessors. It has allowed him to break with tradition in trying to forge a new relationship with owners and league executives.

Early on in his job, Kelly reached out to his counterparts with the NBA, MLB and NFL and suggested the four union heads maintain a closer relationship in terms of information sharing.

Earlier this year, Kelly and members of his executive team were invited to speak to the NHL's general managers. A few weeks ago, Kelly and the union in turn invited NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and top league officials to speak at the players' summer meetings in Las Vegas. Such invitations never would have been extended under the NHLPA's previous regimes.

"I actually do think it's fair [to suggest that]. I don't think it would have happened 10 years ago," Kelly said. "Part of it is, we were under a different CBA and it was a different climate at the time. I think it's a good thing that it is happening.

"The league has invited me to appear before the board of governors and the presidents and the general managers, and I think every opportunity I have to communicate directly with those people, it's a good thing for the sport. They get to ask their questions of me; they get to get a sense of who I am and what I stand for."

No one is suggesting that Kelly leads Bettman and the owners in a rousing version of "Kumbaya" when the two sides get together. There are issues of contention: The limits to which players are willing to submit to enhance the league's drug-testing policy is one. But there is also an appreciation that the two sides can have different opinions without necessarily being on separate planes, which was how the two sides existed for much of the past two decades.

"I think Paul takes a far more constructive approach to labor relations than Bob Goodenow ever did," Daly told ESPN.com via e-mail this week. "He works hard to find common ground as opposed to points of conflict. And he clearly understands that success for the players is integrally tied to the league's success."

These are interesting, if not complicated, times for the players as they try to make their way in this new global economic order under a CBA that has them more closely tied to the league than at any previous point in NHL history.

Theirs is not a true partnership; that much is clear. The players have no say on ownership issues or team relocation, something brought into sharp focus with the plight of the Phoenix Coyotes.

There are differences on whether NHL players should participate in the Olympics beyond the 2010 Vancouver Games, with players generally supportive of continuing their participating and owners generally believing it isn't worth the hassle.

"It's not a partnership. It is a joint venture more than anything else," Kelly said. "I think it can always be improved. I think it has improved since we started. It has gotten better over time.

"There are still instances where we feel we should be more in the loop; we should be notified to a greater degree perhaps at an earlier stage. We should have more to say on some of the critical business decisions, such as franchise relocation and television issues and that kind of thing. But I think the degree of communication has been pretty healthy. We have a lot of touch points between the league and the players' association."

After the openly hostile relationship that characterized the NHL and NHLPA -- defenseman Chris Chelios vaguely threatened Bettman and his family during labor negotiations in the mid-1990s -- Kelly finds himself trying to chart a course that is both conciliatory and strong-willed enough to ensure players' views are not just heard but acted upon.

He has done so by surrounding himself with top people, including outspoken former NHL netminder Glenn Healy, who is director of player affairs for the union.

"The players took a stand that no other professional league has ever taken in 2004. They dug in in a big way and lost an entire season," Healy told ESPN.com recently. "So, moving forward out of some of the regimes in the past, we are in a system that ties us together in a unique way. That unique system requires some diplomacy, but it certainly requires both sides' finding ways of accomplishing things together."

Kelly has the personality to make that work, Healy said.

"You're protecting the players and their careers in a big way and, with that in mind, always looking ahead with a vision and a strategy to the future," Healy said. "When you combine both those things, I think you've got a guy who's smart, who knows what line not to cross. I mean, he put Eagleson away, so obviously he knows what you're not supposed to do. He's put 15 murderers away for life, so if you don't think he's tough, go ask one of those 15 people. And, by the same token, [he] can always find a way to bring the temperature in the room down and find some sort of common ground."

Has there been a moment when Kelly has paused to consider his curious path to becoming the focal point for the players in the best hockey league in the world?

Said Kelly: "You know, when you're standing in front of those special events in our game, whether it's a Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony, whether it's standing next to the rink at the Winter Classic, whether it's being on the ice after they've just given out the Stanley Cup, whether it's being with the players at a player meeting, sitting down with 80 or 100 NHL players without their uniforms on and to just get to know them as people, those points in time, yes, I've said to myself, it just doesn't get any better than this.

"This is where I want to be."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.