Commentary

New leader will inherit dysfunction

Updated: September 3, 2009, 4:45 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

    Wanted: One NHL Players' Association leader who is prepared to kowtow to powerful office lawyer, suck up to potentially vindictive advisory board and kneel before an ombudsman whose union roots date back to Canadian autoworker disputes.

    Qualifications: Must be prepared to be railroaded out of town at a moment's notice if aforementioned kowtowing, sucking up and kneeling are not performed to the specifications of aforementioned figures. And the ability to galvanize membership, deal with NHL and work toward forging a better future for union, league and game is a bonus, not a necessity.


In the wake of a coup that led to the firing of executive director Paul Kelly earlier this week, one question remains: What kind of qualified candidate would bother to submit a résumé and possibly leave whatever top-level career they might have to take this job, having watched the events of the past days and months?

Perhaps no one. At least no one you can imagine who would want to run this dysfunctional show, as the NHLPA heads toward the end of the current collective bargaining agreement and a new deal that will say much about the future of the union and the NHL itself.

And for all the to-ing and fro-ing that continues to go on after Kelly's early-morning demise in Chicago on Monday, we ask this: Would it or will it be any different the next time around?

Let's take a look at the accounts of the events that led to Kelly's firing.

[+] EnlargePaul Kelly
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesThe union announced Monday at its annual meeting that its executive board had voted "overwhelmingly" to remove Paul Kelly from his role as executive director.

Las Vegas

Already at odds with general counsel Ian Penny and former ombudsman Eric Lindros over a number of matters -- not the least of which was a divergent opinion over Kelly's management style and his perceived closeness to NHL brass -- sources said Kelly was asked to leave a meeting during the players' annual gathering in Las Vegas in June, which was attended by members of the union's advisory board and player representatives who make up the NHLPA's executive board. Those sources believe the session was conducted in contravention of the NHLPA's constitution.

After the meeting, it was announced to Kelly that Penny had been awarded a five-year contract extension. Although there had been some e-mail discussion of a potential extension before the meeting, Kelly reportedly complained that the executive board, made up of the NHL's 30 player reps, could not award that contract without his input.

Further discussion resulted in Penny's extension being ratified, although -- according to the constitution -- the executive director has no power to either stop such an extension or remove general counsel should he or she see fit. Contrary to reports, sources said Kelly never voted to approve the contract extension.

It was also decided during this closed session that the union would hire a consultant to perform a staff assessment regarding Kelly's ability to lead the 740-player union. There are questions raised about the propriety of making such a decision without the executive director's input.

"They did not follow the procedures required in the constitution, and will be the target of a major lawsuit," one source told ESPN.com's legal analyst Lester Munson.

Those still with the union insist they were within their rights to act as they did.

The request

Shortly after the closed-door session in Las Vegas, sources told ESPN.com that some players came to Kelly and director of player affairs Glenn Healy to raise concerns about potential breaches of the NHLPA constitution and what they perceived as a concerted effort to push Kelly from office.

It was then that Kelly asked for and received a transcript from the portion of Las Vegas meetings he was excluded from.

Fast-forward to this past weekend's meetings in Chicago. Multiple sources said Kelly informed players at the start of Sunday's session that he had looked at the documents to find out what was going on within the union. After Kelly disclosed how he had obtained this information, Penny and interim ombudsman and former Canadian Auto Workers head Buzz Hargrove told players what Kelly had done was a fireable offense, likening it to the activities of Kelly's predecessor, Ted Saskin, who was found to have secretly accessed players' e-mails.

The staff assessment

After being told about the transcript request, player reps were also presented with the results of the staff assessment report regarding Kelly's ability to lead the union.

Multiple sources told ESPN.com that members of Kelly's staff who were loyal to him were in some cases not interviewed, or their interviews lasted only a matter of minutes.

Sources also said some of the NHLPA's 50 staffers complained to Kelly that they were coached on how to respond in the interview process, to either put Kelly in a negative light or tarnish members of his staff that were loyal to him.

"It was gross," one source told ESPN.com. "They were coached."

ESPN.com's Munson was likewise told by sources the staff review was heavily skewed against Kelly and his supporters.

"The report was a total joke, pure BS," said another source with detailed knowledge of the union and its operations. "It was a deliberate attack on all that Paul had accomplished."

Among those interviewed for the review were four of six divisional player representatives, all former NHL players who were appointed under former ombudsman Eric Lindros, who resigned after butting heads with Kelly. Those reps do not work in the union office.

Then there was the consultant hired to perform the survey, Anne Marie Turnbull, who previously worked for a member of the pro-Penny, anti-Kelly advisory board, Ian Troop. Sources said many, if not all, of the interviews were conducted in office space provided by Troop.

The results of that staff review were key elements of Kelly's ouster after a lengthy overnight meeting, Sunday into Monday in Chicago.

"I'm sitting there listening to this and she was stabbing [Kelly] every minute that she was talking, and she talked for more than an hour," said Ted Lindsay -- among the original pioneers of the NHLPA who attended the Chicago meetings -- to ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun. "About his qualifications, his attitude, what they thought of him in the office … who knows what the questions were and who knows how they asked them -- this was her interpretation as far as I'm concerned."

The debate on whether to fire Kelly raged from late Sunday evening and into the early morning hours Monday. Veteran NHL player Chris Chelios reportedly stood and suggested they take a break and sleep on the issue, but his concerns were ignored. Finally, somewhere between 3:30 and 4 a.m. local time, the player reps voted 22-5 to dismiss Kelly. Penny was asked by the executive board to become interim leader and he accepted, but withdrew his name from consideration for the permanent post (the union said it will form a search committee to find a replacement for Kelly).

In the following hours, top staffers Pat Flatley and Bob Lundquist resigned. On Wednesday, another director, Kevin Lovitt, was fired. On Thursday, Healy handed in his resignation. Those who remain speak in hushed tones for fear of being the next to go.

[+] EnlargePaul Kelly and Gary Bettman
Libor Fojtik/Getty ImagesPaul Kelly, right, was hired by the NHLPA in October 2007.

What now?

The NHLPA's new executive director will be faced with having to make peace with an advisory board loyal to Penny and Lindros, who continued to play a significant role in office politics after he resigned and was replaced by Hargrove.

Among those on the advisory board are Halifax lawyer Ron Pink, who coveted Kelly's job, although it's unclear when exactly players were made aware of Pink's interest in the post. He's not the only one. There are other members of the volunteer committee who covet jobs within the union.

The new executive director will also have to come to terms with the union's constitution; whoever ends up in Kelly's chair must be reconciled to the fact that he must get along with Penny or risk a similar path given that the executive director has no power to remove the general counsel under union rules.

Regardless of whatever personality conflicts existed between Kelly and Penny, the question still remains why the players believed it was necessary to give a five-year contract extension to a staff lawyer, a contract the new executive director will be forced to live with regardless of his/her relationship with Penny.

If any other executive director found himself in a similar position as Kelly did in Vegas, would he not do the same to determine the direction his colleagues might be taking the membership, and whether that direction was in direct contravention of the union's constitution?

And what of the players' role in mess? In the wake of the Kelly firing and the attendant upheaval, sources within the union insist it's unfair to paint the player reps that made the decision as stupid or uncaring. Fair enough. Yet former NHLPA executive members and veteran NHLers have pointed out in a series of interviews this week that many of those who voted to oust Kelly are young, inexperienced and, perhaps, susceptible to strong voices like those who were determined to see Kelly deposed.

It's hard to imagine that if players like Chris Pronger or Jarome Iginla or Sidney Crosby -- reportedly furious about the Kelly sacking -- were in the room that this would have gone down the way it did.

Still, that dynamic is something the new executive director is going to have to come to grips with.

"Culture of paranoia?"

Former executive member Vincent Damphousse described the "culture of paranoia" that envelops the NHLPA. What unfolded this week harkens to that old catchphrase: It's not paranoia if it's real.

Multiple sources said members of the advisory board and divisional player reps were seen high-fiving each other and hugging in celebration after the Chicago meeting broke up.

Celebration? Celebrating after ousting a man they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire less than two years ago and to whom they may yet end up owing millions? The Kelly mess is another low moment for a union whose history is chock-full of low moments.

One wonders if that will be part of the selling package when the NHLPA fills this role, assuming they can find anyone willing to submit a résumé.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com. Reporting from ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun and Lester Munson was used in this story.

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