Headline Hockey

Where Does the NHLPA Go From Here?

paul kelly

I don’t know if this news has been getting much play in the United States, but it is certainly making headlines here in Canada. Early Monday morning at a hotel in Chicago, the National Hockey League Players’ Association fired its Executive Director, Paul Kelly, after a little less than two years on the job. Kelly was terminated for reasons that weren’t all that clear early on. Some say he didn’t know the players or the game well enough. Some say he was too cozy with Commissioner Gary Bettman. The only response that shed any light was from Edmonton Oilers’ player representative Shawn Horcoff, who stated that new information was presented at the meeting which the executive board could not ignore and that they had no choice but to fire him.

As the days passed; however, it seems that two events played a part in the firing. Apparently Kelly obtained the minutes of a private meeting between the players and the NHLPA’s advisory board, minutes he was not supposed to have access too. The other factor in his firing appears to have been the results of a staff assessment conducted to evaluate Kelly’s leadership within the union. The assessment appears to have been a witch hunt of sorts. After receiving the results on Sunday night, the player representatives voted 22-5 (with 3 abstentions) to dismiss Kelly.

I believe that this has the potential to be the biggest story of the year for the National Hockey League. Since the lockout ended in July 2005, Kelly is the third executive director to be fired by the NHLPA. That is an incredible stat. No other players’ association in the four major sports has experienced this type of turmoil in recent years. The NFLPA had a leadership change last year, installing DeMaurice Smith as head of the union following the sudden death of Gene Upshaw, who led the players since 1987. And the MLBPA will be electing a new leader once Donald Fehr steps down in the coming months. But these are natural changes. What is happening with the NHLPA is anything but natural.

Thousands and thousands of words have been written on Paul Kelly and the NHLPA in the past few days. So my only comments are these: who is going to be the new executive director and how might this affect CBA negotiations in 2011? On the first point, Ian Penny, NHLPA general counsel who was hired by Bob Goodenow in 2000, has stepped in as interim director but he has stated that he will not seek the job on a full time basis. A proper search committee has to be formed but the NHLPA has said that they would like to have someone in place by January 1, 2010. That gives the incoming director 18 months to come up with a strategy for the new CBA negotiations. But as Scott Burnside of ESPN suggested, after seeing what happened to Kelly, who could possibly want the job now?

And on the topic of those negotiations, like many others, I believe they will be more contentious without Kelly involved. He seemed to have a good relationship with Gary Bettman (unfortunately for him, maybe too good). That type of relationship would have been useful in negotiating a new CBA successfully and preventing a work stoppage. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how he would have handled the negotiations and what the result would have been.

I had the chance to meet Paul Kelly last November and I came away very impressed. He was kind, approachable, and was willing to answer my questions about getting involved in the business of professional sports. In my opinion, the PA had found a great leader in Kelly and I expected him to be in place for many years to come. It’s unfortunate that he has been let go, but the NHLPA constitution allows the executive committee to make such a move. The board acted well within its power. However, to this outside observer, it seems like this was the wrong move at the wrong time. Hopefully the next director is more acceptable to the players, and that he or she is able to work with the NHL to negotiate a new CBA which serves everyone’s best interests, especially the fans.