Commentary

Shocked Kelly says he'll 'go forward'

Updated: September 3, 2009, 12:56 AM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Paul Kelly, who was fired as executive director of the NHL Players' Association early Monday morning, took some time to take questions from ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun on Wednesday afternoon.

Kelly warned us ahead of time that, because of advice from his legal advisers, he needed to be careful in his answers.

Here is a transcript from the interview:

Paul Kelly
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesThe NHLPA announced Monday that its executive board had voted to remove executive director Paul Kelly. He held the job for less than two years.

Pierre LeBrun: It's been a couple of days, Paul. Have you been able to decompress the dramatic events, and can you still believe it happened?

Paul Kelly: I'd say that unless someone has gone through this type of experience, it's difficult for people to fathom the range of emotions, the stress that you feel. It's been an excruciating past three days. I can't say that I've fully come to grips with all of my emotions. I'm still feeling a tremendous degree of sadness and disappointment and still an element of shock. I think it's going to take more time for some of those feelings to dissipate. There's a tinge of anger in there, as well. But you know what, I'm a big boy and I'll go forward and deal with it as best as I know how.

Scott Burnside: Paul, when did you first get an inkling there may have been some issues and that your leadership and your position might be up for some debate?

Kelly: Again, I don't want to cast aspersions on anybody or talk about internal issues, but let me answer that generally. I would just echo what I think [NHLPA interim ombudsman] Buzz Hargrove said publicly yesterday, which is that there were some matters that were brought to my attention back at the meetings in Las Vegas. And so, I would say it would be at that time I became aware that there were some people who were likely going to be seeking some way to push me along and push me out of my chair.

LeBrun: One of the criticisms that has come out in lieu of your firing has been the charge that you didn't get to know the players enough. What would be your reaction to that?

Kelly: That one I react quite strongly with. I don't accept that at all. [NHLPA director of player affairs] Glenn Healy, [NHLPA assistant director of player affairs] Pat Flatley and myself spent an enormous amount of time and effort connecting with players. I don't think you're hearing that from players.

I think between our fall tour visits [meeting with all 30 NHL teams], meeting with players, taking players out to dinner, spending time with them at events such as All-Star Games and Winter Classics, and player meetings, whether in Europe or the United States, and, frankly, just attending a large number of games. Whenever I attended games in Toronto, I commonly visited with the visiting team and often with the Leafs. When I was in Boston, I was a regular visitor to games there and spending time with players there.

I've been to practice facilities, training facilities. I used to send written notes and text messages to players on a daily basis. I used to watch games in the evening and the following morning, if a guy had done something terrific or a guy had suffered an injury, I would almost always drop a note to that guy. I had a steady and extensive level of contact with players.

I really don't accept for a minute the suggestion that I didn't do enough to connect with my players. There are 740 of our members; it's not always an easy thing to connect with all 740, but I tell you, I worked at it very hard. And I enjoyed every moment I had when interacting with the players. They're a classy and terrific group of people, and probably the thing I will miss the most is my interaction with them.

Burnside: Paul, are there concerns that you have now, going through what you've gone through, about the constitution or the structure of the NHLPA that you think someone who will step into your role should be concerned about or aware of?

Kelly: On that one, I have to say that I've been asked by legal counsel to refrain from making any comments about that. I mean, I think people are generally aware that there are challenges associated with the existing structure of the players' association, and obviously it was in response to some things that occurred in their history. Since I care so much about the players and their association, I do hope that they take the opportunity to evaluate that structure and tweak it as they deem necessary.

LeBrun: Another criticism that's out there is that your relationship with the league was too close.

Kelly: You know, when I took the job on, one of the things that was said to me by the search committee, both in writing and also verbally, was that we [the NHLPA] were looking for somebody who was able to come up with a constructive, professional relationship with the league to grow HRR [hockey-related revenue], and that we couldn't have a relationship which was typified by some of the past executive directors, which was relatively adversarial with the league; that the only way that players do well under a cap system is to work together with the league to grow the pie. Because the bigger the HRR pie is, the better the players do.

Certainly, it was my view that you could have a constructive relationship with the league and still aggressively defend and protect the rights of players. And it was my effort from the start to try and strike that right balance. I was always motivated by my desire and intent to protect the players and improve their situation as players, for both themselves and their families. But I don't think you have to do it to an extreme. I think we did try to strike the right tone and that we did some very good things for the sport, as well as our players, along the way.

Burnside: Paul, do you have any regrets about your management style or things that you did? Looking back at what the players were hearing [at their meetings] in Chicago, do you have any regrets?

Kelly: I don't know if I've reached a point in my thinking -- it's probably too soon after the events of the other night to fashion a response to that one. I'm sure in the coming days and weeks I'll have more to think about along that line. I will say that the suggestion I've seen floated out there in a few articles that I had a difficult management style, I would defy anybody to talk to anyone who has ever worked for me, not just in this job at the NHL Players' Association but in my former life as a lawyer running a firm that I partly owned.

I'm a pretty easy guy to work for. I respect my employees; I treat them with fairness and dignity. I have an open-door policy, I always have. I believe in treating people with genuine respect and friendship. I always did that at the NHLPA. I do agree in holding people accountable, but I don't do it in any kind of dictatorial way. So the suggestion that I had a difficult management style I find hard to believe, and I suggest that anybody who has ever worked for me would probably find that very hard to believe, as well.

LeBrun: Paul, do you object at all to the fashion in which Sunday night occurred, in the sense of whether, (a) you felt you had ample time to give your side of the story, and (b), according to your knowledge of the constitution, should there not have been more of a communication between the 30 players reps and the rest of the players around the league before making such an important decision?

Kelly: Respectfully, Pierre, I think I need to decline to answer that question. I am a believer that what goes on in a locker room ought to stay in the locker room. Now you're getting into the area of internal union business. I have too much respect for the players on the executive board, and players generally, and the association going forward to kind of delve into any kind of degree of negativism about that. I'm a forward-looking guy, not a backward-looking guy, so I'll leave that to others to decide.

Burnside: Do you have a sense of what's next in terms of how you proceed with the NHLPA and beyond that? Both sides are being very cautious about what they're saying for the record. Do you have a sense of how this might play out?

Kelly: I'm motivated by, really the first factor that enters my mind, is what's best for the players, how do I protect the players, and the second factor is what's best for the game of hockey. I don't think a public airing of dirty laundry or critical comments going back and forth is really that good for our sport or our players or our association. So I would prefer not to go there. Frankly, whatever I can do to be helpful to the players in terms of getting beyond this juncture, I am more than happy to do. With respect to what lies ahead for me personally and professionally, I obviously need more time to let this settle out a bit and then evaluate what options are there for me and move forward.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.

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