Inharmonious Kelly firing leaves game in flux

Updated: November 11, 2009, 10:44 AM ET

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Despite what some say, Paul Kelly was not too close to Gary Bettman, above.

This blogumn is generally about the important things in life: kids, Hakan Loob, deep-fried cheese and pet otters. These are the vital things in life that have deep meaning. The inner workings of a "union," representing athletes who make salaries that we could only dream of, generally don't interest me or you. Unless we saw what happened in 2004-2005 with a season-long work stoppage. That got our attention.

Now these unions can have benefits besides labor harmony for our good. They can help keep NHL players safe. They can help players manage their money in order to have a dignified and societally beneficial post-hockey life. And yes, they can help grow the game and the money pot by using the superstars to help out the grinders and fighters who might have short careers after sacrificing their bodies for the common good. Wayne Gretzky was the first to do this. He sacrificed millions for himself for the good of others. How ironic Gretzky was sacrificed by the NHL (not the NHL Players' Association) with millions on the line.

The NHLPA has been in the news all season long with the strange dismissal of executive director Paul Kelly. Kelly came in with great credentials and a disposition of someone who embodied hard work and intellect and didn't need or crave the spotlight. And then, poof! Just like that he was gone. I've never met or talked to Paul Kelly, but I certainly admired his résumé and what he showed during on-camera interviews.

The NHLPA is a rather small operation with multiple tentacles of Kelly, players, ex-players, lawyers and so on and so on. What follows takes you inside the NHLPA turmoil of the past couple of months by someone inside the circle, and this account is corroborated by others as well. The purpose is to give you an idea of how important harmony and focus are for this players' association in order to keep labor peace for your benefit.

How many people were affected by the upheaval at the NHLPA?

Everyone in the office and every player was and will be affected, and most importantly, the fans have been affected. This coup left the players' association without a strong leader, divided the membership, emboldened the NHL's management, hurt the NHLPA's and hockey's business interests and has created questions for the fans. It is bad anytime the focus is taken away from the game and the players, and in this case the inner machinations and politics within the NHLPA have been the main focus of the media for more than two months.

I think the most telling circumstance of the whole process is that guys like Pat Flatley and Glenn Healy resigned their positions. Healy and Flatley were the only two officials within the NHLPA who actually played in the NHL. Healy played 16 years and Flatley 14. They knew what it was to be a player and to sit in an NHL locker room. They love and respect the players, and the fact that these two guys resigned their positions speaks volumes about what was right. Both of these guys would come back tomorrow under the right circumstances because they want to be part of helping the players.

How would you characterize the firing of Paul Kelly, and was it justified?

It wasn't justified. Obviously, the way it was done at 4 a.m. was terrible, but when you consider whether it was justified, take a look at all the people who have come out against it: the fans, Ted Lindsay, Jeremy Roenick, Bill Guerin, Bobby Orr, Brad Park. Most of the players, including Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, have questioned why and how it happened, and that was evidenced by the fact that a number of team reps (Andrew Ference) were not re-elected and that the players felt the need to appoint a review board (Blake, Chelios, Recchi, Lidstrom) to investigate the whole issue.

As for justification from a performance perspective, it was not justified, either. Paul Kelly did not negotiate the deal after the lockout; he inherited it. He did not negotiate the payment into escrow; he inherited the deal. Many feel that Kelly was organizing the pieces to be in place for a negotiation in 2012. Kelly was toppled by an advisory board and some of the senior managers who manipulated a few key players like Andrew Ference into thinking that Kelly wasn't the right man for the job. Those people within the NHLPA were paranoid about losing their power and their influence, as well as about the prospect that they were being held responsible for their performance, and they felt they needed to get rid of Kelly. It's curious that, once the players appointed the committee, all of the decision-makers ran for the hills, rather than addressing the questions around the termination.

People have speculated that one of the reasons was that Kelly was too close to Gary Bettman, but Bettman shared many more dinners and golf dates with Bob Goodenow than he ever did with Kelly. Kelly had the respect of Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and everyone at the NHL offices.

Technically, the advisory board was hanging its hat on the concept that Kelly's termination was because he looked at the transcript of a closed session of the NHLPA's executive board earlier this year. First, Kelly was alerted by a number of players on the executive board that there was a constitutional violation involved, so as the executive director he had a duty to review the transcript. Kelly's interests were in protecting the players, not in harming them. In fact, the meeting did violate the NHLPA constitution, and he informed the executive board of that fact. Second, Kelly was the chairman of the executive board, so it's curious that he would not be involved in the meeting. (Can you see ESPN President George Bodenheimer not being privy to the info at any meeting at ESPN?) At any rate, these were not grounds for termination.

What kind of repercussions do you feel will be felt by not having Paul and his staff in place at the NHLPA?

There will be major repercussions.

On the business side, many current and potential corporate sponsors and licensees must be questioning the value of the NHLPA brand and whether this is the kind of organization they want to be associated with. There will be a lot of downward pressure on renewals with those current partners, and potential new partners will be harder to find. As for hockey as a whole, any company thinking of investing in hockey has to be thinking "What happens if there is a lockout or a strike?"

On the overall CBA negotiations, I think it hurts the players because it has left them so divided and without a leader. This decision was made over nine hours by 27 player reps (three teams were not even represented). The player reps never consulted with their teams, so the vast majority (around 650 players) -- whose votes were required to elect Paul Kelly -- were never consulted or even informed about the possibility of such a decision. This has left the players sharply divided and has caused a huge amount of questioning of the system and the NHLPA organization. This will affect the players because the 30 owners will be tightly behind Gary Bettman, while the players will be in a much more divided and therefore weaker position.

The best thing the players could ever do would be to bring Kelly back. If that were to happen he would have the support of the media, the retired players, the rank-and-file players, the superstars and, most importantly, the fans. No other executive director has had that kind of support, and that is what is going to be needed to negotiate the best possible deal.

Whether Paul Kelly would come back is a question. He will have a lot of opportunities, and the NHL would probably like to see him on its side of the negotiating table in 2012, but he would probably come back if he was asked. He had the respect of the NHL players and the NHL offices, and he genuinely loved and respected the players. I suspect his interests still lie in helping to protect the players and the game of hockey. The players will be hard-pressed to find a person to take that position with the same passion and integrity.

Why were some players so quick to make a change? Were they making any complaints about Kelly's performance, and if so, what were they?

The vast majority of the players never wanted a change. This was a carefully plotted coup by Ian Penny and the members of the advisory board. This decision was made by 27 players who were kept in a room and forced to vote at 3:30 a.m. despite the protestations from guys like Chris Chelios, who wanted the guys to come back in the morning before making any vote. Most of these guys just wanted to get to bed and never realized or anticipated what the repercussions and ramifications of this decision would be. No less than Ted Lindsay, the man who started the NHLPA, stated, "This was a crucifixion." And, as for the infamous HR report, it would be interesting to see if any of the positive statements that were made about Paul Kelly were ever reported to the executive board.

Any problems with Paul Kelly from the players' side would have come through either Glenn Healy or the just-resigned interim ombudsman, Buzz Hargrove. Further, Hargrove admitted he had never even seen an NHL hockey game until last season. (How can you relate to and represent the players if you have never seen a game?) At one point, he also stated, "In [my] 17 years of running a union, I was never outmaneuvered." This whole mess was orchestrated by Hargrove, Penny and Ron Pink (who had applied and was passed over for the executive director position) in trying to wrest control for themselves.

What should fans know about any financial issues that could arise in the future?

People have tried to portray the NHL/NHLPA relationship as a labor-versus-management negotiation. But it's really a business negotiation. The current CBA is a partnership, and when one side does well, the other side does well. The focus should be on building the NHL from a $2.5 billion business into a $3 billion one, not trying to screw the other side to get a bigger percentage of a shrinking business.

As a sport, the NHL has never been better. The game is faster and more skilled, and there are more young and exciting players than ever before. As a business, there are opportunities and challenges. On the positive side, there are great opportunities to expand the game internationally. But there are definite challenges, too. The sport is still struggling to gain a foothold in nontraditional hockey markets, and the economy has affected every business, including hockey.

As for specific financial issues, markets like Phoenix are a concern. Also, the players must be concerned about escrow payments, especially the fact that those are uncapped. The escrow issue was not a major problem in the first few years of the CBA because the players received all the deposited funds back, but last year the shrinking economy cost the players around 18 percent of their contracts and that must have an effect.

What were your biggest frustrations dealing with NHL players while you were representing them?

To a man, the players were more than happy to do anything that would help on the business and marketing side and to help grow the game.

What is your biggest regret?

That we never got the chance to see the fruits of what we had started to plant. On the business side, we were building some tremendous player-only platforms that would have not only enhanced the stature of the players, but also would have given them equity in the programs themselves. This is something the NHLPA had never done before.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.


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Bucci's Power 5

Evgeni Malkin hurt, Sergei Gonchar hurt, Tyler Kennedy hurt, Maxime Talbot hurt and now Kris Letang hurt. Eventually, the Pens need these dudes back, and once they are, look out. They should finish first in the East, and Sidney Crosby is actually playing the best all-around hockey of his career. The points will come in bunches for him, and he will be in the MVP talk.

Evgeni Nabokov is playing like a Vezina winner. Joe Pavelski is now back, and I'm a huge fan of his game. The Sharks are going to continue to congeal and really be a force by season's end. This really could be the year!

Playing without and winning without and scoring seven goals without Alex Ovechkin is a good thing for the Caps. Ovechkin is so much like LeBron James in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Both have a gigantic presence and are the supreme athlete in their sports, and maybe sometimes others don't bring enough of their games because Ovie and Bron will take care of them. And that shouldn't happen because both are selfless, magnetic people.

The Flames are really showing they are a competitive force. Eleven of their next 14 games are on the road, so this will be an interesting stretch. Will they give Miikka Kiprusoff a break every now and then? This team is arcing toward being a playoff beast, one would think.

The Flyers have played only 14 games, so their point total is misleading. This team can really score with its lethal power play, and its penalty kill has been real strong. The Flyers' focus now has to be slowly getting better as the season progresses. They shouldn't waste this chance.

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