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Penny addresses fallout from Kelly firing

9/9/2009 - NHL

NEW YORK -- You can hardly turn around these days without running into someone who wants to give the NHL Players' Association a good swift kick in the shins in the wake of last week's dismissal of executive director Paul Kelly.

Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay attacked the union over its handling of the Kelly firing in an interview with ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun. So did another great, Bobby Orr, who is a close friend of Kelly's and likewise blasted the union earlier this week.

Former director of player affairs Glenn Healy savaged the NHLPA when he resigned from his post last Thursday.

Yet, the NHLPA's acting executive director and general counsel, Ian Penny, explained to ESPN.com on Tuesday that the work of the union goes on despite the criticism. Penny, a key voice in the move to oust Kelly, was in New York to meet with some of the game's biggest stars as part of an annual media and promotional gathering here.

For him, it was a chance to both reassure those stars that the union is on track and hear concerns players might have about how the Kelly decision came about.

Although he wouldn't go so far as to suggest the surprise dismissal of an executive director hired less than two years ago served as a wake-up call to a sometimes passive membership, Penny said he has heard from players who expressed an interest in being more involved in union affairs.

"What we're hearing back is that there's strong support for the process that the player reps went through [in making the decision to fire Kelly]," Penny said. "But at the same time, there are players that say, 'You know what, these are pretty heavy decisions and I should be more involved, more informed.'

"I think we will see probably more involvement as a result of the guys seeing just how weighty some of these decisions are and having an interest in being involved."

One concern several players have expressed to ESPN.com is the need for some of the game's younger, higher-profile players to take a more active role in the NHLPA, that some player representatives lack experience and profile. But Penny said it's important for the union to reflect the different types of players in the league.

"Sure, you always want to have a good cross-section of the league in terms of the high-profile players and some of the guys that are maybe third-liners, fourth-liners that bring different perspectives," Penny said. "The more involvement from every sort of level of player is healthy and that's what we want."

Kelly was hired less than two years ago after an exhaustive job search that included recommendations from former player Dave Poulin's consulting company. Penny said the players are looking to move outside the box in hiring Kelly's successor.

"We pledged to [the players] that we were going to take every measure possible to move that process forward as quickly as possible, but also to do it in a smart way," Penny said. "That really flowed from hearing from some of the players that maybe we should take a step back and maybe think about what's the best process and not necessarily jump into the old way of doing things."

Penny explained that the NHLPA is "basically canvassing all sorts of different sources to come up with fresh ideas on how to approach the search because we're such a unique organization, [so] we end up finding somebody that the guys are very pleased with and that fits our particular operation."

Penny, a longtime NHLPA staffer who received a controversial five-year contract extension at this past June's annual meetings in Las Vegas, has said he has no designs on the post he now holds on an interim basis. He hopes the NHLPA will have a new executive director by the end of the calendar year or early in 2010. In the interim, Penny said he does not expect the union to make any significant policy changes.

"Well, certainly in terms of any major undertakings or policy decisions for the union, that's going to be on the plate of the next executive director, so we're just attempting to keep things moving as they have been," Penny said.

Given reports of the backroom politicking that led to Kelly's firing and the fact that the move came after Kelly's predecessor, Ted Saskin, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had secretly accessed players' e-mails shortly after the end of the lockout, one might believe finding the right person for the job might be difficult. Penny disagreed.

"That's a fair question, but ultimately, the chance to represent 700 elite hockey players is such, in some ways, a dream job for, I imagine, so many people, because it's so rewarding," Penny said. "And there's tremendous challenges involved, but just the ability to work for these great guys, I don't think we're going to have problems finding great candidates."

As for mending bridges with critics like Lindsay, one of the godfathers of the NHLPA, Orr and other top agents who have been quietly critical of the process, Penny said he hopes time will heal those wounds.

"It's not easy," he said of the criticism. "But when you've been in the labor law business your whole career, you understand that there are times when things can get a bit rough. It is saddening to have any questions being raised by such great and respected figures in the sport, and hopefully over the time when we have a chance to talk more and just through the passage of time, some of these doubts and questions can be addressed and we end up all getting back on the same page together.

"I think with the goodwill that we plan on bringing to that process and reaching out to these people, it's just a matter of time before some of those rifts get healed."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.