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An important season looms for Paul Kelly and NHL Players' Association

TORONTO - One of Paul Kelly's first tasks in his first full season at the helm of the NHL Players' Association might be his most important yet.

During visits with all 30 teams this fall, the NHLPA's executive director will give players a thorough analysis of the collective bargaining agreement before they vote on whether they want to see that deal terminated two years early.

The results of that vote will be given to the union's executive board, which has until May 15 to make a final decision.

While there seems to be little appetite for any labour unrest so soon after the NHL lost a season to the lockout, Kelly and the 700-plus union members will examine the various affects of the current document closely.

There is much to consider.

The CBA was widely viewed as a bad deal for the players when it was signed just over three years ago.

However, the salary cap has since risen by 45 per cent to $56.7 million, and Kelly has seen the overall perception of the agreement change with it.

"I think that it has worked better for the players than they anticipated coming out of the lockout in 2005," he said recently.

"I think there was a great deal of fear and unhappiness (when it was signed).

There was a lot of unhappiness about the fact that the players had agreed to a rollback of salaries by 24 per cent.

There was a fear of what a cap system was going to mean - not only for them personally, but for their team.

"I think as it has evolved ...

it's actually worked relatively well."

Of course, there are elements of the deal he'd prefer to see changed.

One concern that Kelly identified is a growing divide between the league's rich and poor teams.

Since the salary cap is driven by league revenues, the financial success of the NHL's strongest franchises forces the cap upwards.

When that happens, rich teams have more room to spend on payroll than many of the poor ones can afford.

The current CBA includes revenue sharing to help level the playing field but the NHLPA would prefer to see even more money shared "to make all the clubs really viable."

"In our view, that is an issue that really needs to be addressed by revenue sharing between and amongst the owners," said Kelly.

"When the Maple Leafs and the Rangers and the Flyers and the Canadiens and the Canucks make huge amounts of money and drive that growth factor ...

"When those big-market clubs drive those revenues - eight, nine per cent a year increase - it does have an affect on some of the smaller-market teams."

Kelly has dedicated many hours to learning the ins and outs of his job since being hired by the NHLPA nearly a year ago.

The former trial lawyer's 10-plus months with the union has seen him get involved with negotiations, business development, pension issues and office management - not to mention fostering relationships with NHL players and other power brokers in the game.

"It's a challenging job for a bunch of reasons," said Kelly.

"It has a number of dimensions to it, many of which were kind of new to me.


"It can be daunting."

He seems to have done a solid job of overcoming any challenges.

During a lengthy interview with The Canadian Press, Kelly spoke with authority on a variety of issues currently affecting the union and the game.

The regular season kicks off in Europe for a second straight year with games in Stockholm and Prague this Saturday.

While Kelly and the NHLPA are strongly in favour of playing overseas, he'd like to see the league share its long-term strategy for making an impact in Europe.

"Let's not just pick a series of European cities to play a few games in," said Kelly.

"What are we planning here? Are we looking to possibly expand into Europe in the future? Is this a marketing opportunity? Do we hope to develop corporate partners overseas? Are we trying to develop fertile ground for new players to come to the NHL - expose young kids to our sport so that they want to play in the NHL?

"What is the mission that we're on here?"

International hockey relations have been a hot topic over the summer with Russia's new Continental Hockey League, known as the KHL, front and centre.

The Alex Radulov case is one that Kelly has been personally involved with.

Radulov has a year left on his deal with the Nashville Predators but signed a three-year contract to play in the new league.

Kelly still firmly believes that the Russian wants to return to the North America and thinks a resolution is required on the matter before the KHL will ever be able to establish a working relationship with the NHL.

"I think the way that the Russians have dealt with the Radulov situation is unprincipled and not supportable," said Kelly.

"I think that the Russians are going to have to change their approach and be able to live up to their commitments.

"If they resolve the Radulov situation in a way which is a positive for the player and consistent with the fact that he has a valid contract with the Predators, I think that there is a real chance that we can have a very strong working relationship with the KHL going forward."

One of Kelly's stated goals in accepting the position last year was to forge a positive relationship with the league.

Both he and commissioner Gary Bettman believe that's happened so far, although Kelly is quick to note that two men have to champion competing interests from time to time.

"We don't always agree," said Kelly.

"In fact, some of our disagreements - we're firmly on different sides of an issue.

But I would say that even in those instances, our disagreements have been professional.

"We certainly have understood where each other is coming from.

I'm actually fairly pleased with the nature of the relationship at the present time."

The union's current focus is on moving forward.

Kelly took control after a period of turmoil that saw the hiring and firing of former executive director Ted Saskin and the divisive acceptance of a salary cap to end the lockout.

On the association's website, the current era is referred to as "A New Beginning."

"We are trying to regain that trust on the part of the players and the employees and the league and the fans," said Kelly.

"(We want to) build that kind of unity and solidarity among the membership.

And through that process, we also want to help build the game and work with the league to grow the game and better market the game.

"So, yeah, it's a new beginning.

We still have a lot of work ahead of us."


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