“I don’t want to dwell on the past,” Paul Kelly said during a half-hour news conference at a downtown Toronto hotel.
Kelly takes over after a period of turmoil marked by the hiring and firing of Ted Saskin as the association’s executive director and the divisive acceptance of a salary cap during the lockout.
Those lessons, Kelly said, will be important to remember. But he stressed it’s time to turn the page.
“It is something that I feel strongly about,” Kelly told The Canadian Press later in an interview. “I really do believe that it’s a new day. I want it to be a positive relationship between the NHL Players’ Association and the league. I think we owe it to the fans to put that lockout/work stoppage and all of those issues behind us.
“To focus on the game, win back our traditional fans, develop new young fans, do a better job of marketing our young stars of the game, do a better job of the TV coverage and the media attention particularly down in the United States.”
The 52-year-old Kelly, who leaves behind a lucrative career as a partner in a Boston law firm, is a passionate hockey fan who grew up playing the game. He made his reputation as a tough federal prosecutor who put away mobsters and drug dealers and helped bring down former NHLPA head Alan Eagleson.
“He has unquestioned integrity and that’s very important to us,” said Los Angeles Kings star Mike Cammalleri, a member of the five-player search committee that chose Kelly.
Kelly said he signed an incentive-laden deal, which reportedly could approach $2 million a year if he achieved all those goals.
Kelly feels strongly about helping to put the game back on stronger footing south of the border. He’ll push hard on behalf of the players to have a bigger say in how the NHL markets and brands the game.
“In Boston where I’m from, for example, we’ve got the Red Sox, we’ve got the Patriots and we’ve got the Celtics with some new players, and the Bruins have kind of become a whole lot less relevant,” said Kelly. “There’s a lot of work to be done but I want to see the Bruins get back so that they are on a par with the Red Sox and the Patriots. And that’s just one city.
“My view is, we’ve got to move forward together with the league and that’s what I hope to do.”
Kelly was nominated for the job by the union’s search committee after a four-month search. The union’s 30 player reps completed a secret ballot vote and Kelly was officially hired Tuesday.
“Right from the first time I met Paul, right away I kind of had the feeling that this would be our guy,” Edmonton Oilers forward Shawn Horcoff, a member of the search committee, said on the phone Wednesday. “I just came away really impressed from the first time I met him. On top of his qualifications and everything that he’s going to bring, and the fresh start that he’s going to bring to the union, the biggest thing is that he’s a good communicator.
“He’s going to be able to go out there, really get to know each player, and they’ll get to really know him. And I don’t think we really had that in the past.”
Kelly takes over from Saskin, who was fired as executive director May 11 amid allegations he ordered the spying of NHLPA player e-mails in the midst of a player uprising against his leadership. Saskin was also criticized by some players, notably Chris Chelios – who led the charge against Saskin – for being too chummy with the league.
That has led many to believe that Kelly is a closer fit to Bob Goodenow, another former NHLPA executive director who oversaw a massive rise in player salaries during his term from 1992 to 2005 while taking on a militant hard-line stance with the league. Too hard for many.
While he respects Goodenow, Kelly clearly rejected the notion he was another Goodenow.
“I knew Bob pretty well and I guess if I had any healthy criticism for Bob – and even then I’m sure I said it to him – was that he viewed every issue between the NHL Players’ Association and the league as adversarial and a fight,” Kelly told The Canadian Press. “And it got to a point where frankly he had a difficult time even being in the same room with (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman and some of the owners. That’s not my style, that’s not my approach. It will never be my style or my approach.
“When there’s a need and a time for toughness, it’ll be there. But for the most part, I intend on reaching across the aisle and work with those guys and try to make this game a whole lot better because I think quite frankly we owe it to the fans to do so.”
Cammalleri also disagreed with the notion the union had hired another Goodenow.
“Paul was a federal prosecutor so maybe that’s why some of the media took that opinion,” Cammalleri said on the phone from Los Angeles. “He’s someone that’s always going to have our interest first and foremost, someone who is going to be a strong leader for us. But at the same time he’s not someone who’s not going to be able to walk into a room with Gary (Bettman). I think he’s going to be able to get deals done in a very effective fashion.
“That’s a big plus for us. We really saw both sides of the coin there with him.”
Eric Lindros, who has worked long hours this summer in helping hire Kelly while also working on the union’s new constitution, agreed the union leader appears to know when the time will be right to be flexible or feisty with the league.
“The message that I got from sitting there is that yes, there’s certain times to pick a fight and there’s certain times to let things pass,” said Lindros. “The Players’ Association is not going to put its head in the sand. If the players feel there’s an issue worth pursuing, we’ve got our guy to help along.”
Bettman left a voice mail message for Kelly on Wednesday.
“I look forward to getting better acquainted with Paul and I look forward to working with him,” Bettman said in a statement.
Kelly said during his news conference that he hopes to sit down with Bettman in the near future and get to know him on a personal level.
“Because my view of the world is that unless you have a personal relationship, a really human relationship with someone, it’s difficult to get down and transact difficult business with that person if you’re always dealing at this distant level,” said Kelly. “So I want to get to know Gary and I want him to get to know me.
“I understand that there is a line there, that we represent different interests and from time to time we may have different views of some difficult issues, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a healthy respect for one another and perhaps not even ignite a friendship with one another. And that’s frankly what I hope to do.”
The players have the right to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement after the 2008-09 season – two years early. Kelly has read the document three times already.
“I think from my initial understanding is that it has some positive portions and there are some portions which frankly are questionable and may need to be re-visited,” said Kelly. “But again, that’s a matter that’s going to require a lot of study and discussion between and amongst the players.
“Hopefully we can simply the document, emphasize the positives, and correct the negatives.”
Privately, it’s believed the last thing Kelly thinks the sport can handle is another work stoppage. Which is good news for fans.
But don’t think for a second the NHLPA’s new leader doesn’t know who he is dealing with.
“The owners of the NHL clubs are businessmen. They’re in it to make money,” said Kelly. “And if they can put 25 guys on the ice that can play the game for $100 a night, they would do it. Understanding that there’s no way that someone like myself who is the voice of the players and their representative can ever be in a true partnership – but can we work together, does it need to be a joint venture, do we need to understand where we should co-operate and where we should draw the line? – absolutely.
“But if anybody thinks that I’m just going to fire the first shot across the bow at the NHL, they got it all wrong.”
Kelly was a partner at Kelly, Libby & Hoopes, a Boston law firm that specializes in internal investigations and complex civil and administrative litigation. He previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
Quotes after Wednesday’s official announcement of the NHLPA’s new executive director
TORONTO – What was said Wednesday after Paul Kelly was introduced as the new executive director of the NHL Players’ Association:
“As I’ve told a couple of people, what I frankly would like to do is to sit down with Gary just the two of us one day, one on one, maybe over lunch or dinner or a cup of coffee – whatever is convenient for him – and just kind of talk for a while and get to know each other and find out what makes each other tick. ‘What do you like to do in your spare time? What’s your family like?’ Because my view of the world is that unless you have a personal relationship, a really human relationship with someone, it’s difficult to get down and transact difficult business with that person if you’re always dealing at this distant level. So I want to get to know Gary and I want him to get to know me. I understand that there is a line there, that we represent different interests and from time to time we may have different views of some difficult issues, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a healthy respect for one another and perhaps not even ignite a friendship with one another. And that’s frankly what I hope to do.” – Kelly on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
“The bio on him speaks volumes. We put a lot of trust in our search committee to narrow down the finalists and he just stood out above the rest. And we’re excited to have him.” – Atlanta Thrashers player rep Garnet Exelby.
“It’s a positive thing for the union. Everybody is back on the same page. I’m pretty sure this vote to have him appointed was unanimous. I don’t know for sure but . . . that’s my thought. Now things can move forward. We’re not split like we were right after the lockout. Everybody is back on the same page. We’ve got a leader now we all trust and we’ll move forward.” – Toronto Maple Leafs player rep Matt Stajan.
“Before we do anything and even think about that, we have to get everybody on side, everybody needs to get to know Paul. Paul needs to learn the current CBA inside and out and then he has to build a game plan from that and have a vision of what he wants and what he views our future to be at the union. Once we come up with that business/game plan, we need to bring that back to the whole league, all 750 members, and get everybody on side with that. That’s a long process, a lot of work to be done. Can it be done in two years? Maybe. Do we feel like that’s the right thing to do and open it up in two years? Who knows. We don’t know yet. I think it’s really premature to answer that question and to even think that far ahead.” – Edmonton Oilers forward Shawn Horcoff, member of the search committee that nominated Kelly, on whether the union will re-open the collective bargaining agreement in two years.
“Under the current situation, we need someone that can look after and watch the CBA, watch what evolves going forward and deal with a CBA that’s not great. We’re not pleased about it. And he’s the right person to do it.” – Eric Lindros, member of the search committee, on Kelly.
“That moment took place just over two years ago, that was when a single player in the NHL stood up and questioned how the process of finding a new NHLPA leader was being handled. . . . This player stood against the tide and called for a process that would help the players find the best man for the job – a process that followed the union’s constitution, a process that would include some sort of search for qualified candidates. That player was Trent Klatt. And the process he persistently called for has finally taken place.” – NHLPA associate counsel Ian Penny on Klatt paving the way for Wednesday’s announcement.
“To the NHL and the to the management of the 30-member teams, I say to you that it is a new day here at the NHL Players’ Association. And I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and working with you to grow this game, to expand the revenues in a manner which is beneficial for all and to make decisions about the future direction of this great sport that are in the best interest of our fans – not only here in North America but around the world.” – Kelly.
“To the fans, I want to say that I am a fan myself. And I want what I think you want. And I will try to do my part to help bring it about. That is quality, competitive play on the ice surface night after night. Greater access and exposure to the elite athletes and outstanding guys who play this game. Wider television and multi-media coverage of our sport. Better merchandising and improved marketing of the sport of professional hockey. Players who understand and respect the history and traditions of the game and who play the game with a healthy respect for their opponents, who are their fellow members of the Players’ Association. And lastly, to have as little mention of lockouts, strikes and labour strife as humanly possible.” – Kelly.
“It reads like the tax code. I’ve read it about three times. My sense is that it’s been lawyered to death by lawyers that are obviously highly skilled and have been doing this a long time probably in multiple sports. It is difficult for any average person to read it and come away with a real appreciation for what’s there. It is my hope to be able to digest it and explain it to the players in a way that makes sense. My reaction to it? There are so many component parts to it. I think from my initial understanding is that it has some positive portions and there are some portions which frankly are questionable and may need to be re-visited. But again, that’s a matter that’s going to require a lot of study and discussion between and amongst the players. Hopefully we can simply the document, emphasize the positives, and correct the negatives.” – Kelly on the current collective bargaining agreement.
“I have a long and deep passion not only for the sport but for the players of the NHL. As a mediocre player, coach, someone who then investigated Mr. Eagleson and the NHL Players’ Association over many years and who has defended a great number of players and members of their family in difficult times since I left working for the U.S. Department of Justice, for me this job is like a dream job opportunity. I would call it the completion of a circle. I really do believe that I have the skills and the attributes that can be put to work for the benefit of these players.” – Kelly on why he took the job.
“We want to learn from the history of this NHL Players’ Association and there have been dark days. I think that the players, the staff and certainly myself need to be mindful of what has occurred in the past and learn from it, but frankly move forward. I don’t want to live in the past. I don’t want this union to live in the past. I want to learn from those mistakes and move forward.” – Kelly on what’s transpired at the union in the last two years.
“I’ll be careful with my comments. I think that we can do a better job. I think that they’ve done OK, I think we can do better. I don’t profess to be a marketing expert but one thing that I’ve learned from my days as a trial lawyer, when you don’t have the expertise yourself, you go out and get it. If needed an expert in a trial in a particular area, whether it’s medicine or some type of physics, I got out and get the very very best. And my view of marketing is the same. We need to find someone or maybe a couple of different people who have a long history and experience in marketing of professional sports. And we need to tap those people and find out not only how we can connect with our traditional fan base, but how can we expand a new fan base.” – Kelly on the NHL’s effort to market the game.
“In Massachusetts for example, we have 50,000 youth hockey players in Eastern Massachusetts alone. That’s probably 35,000 to 40,000 families that are in some way connected to this sport. If you’re in that type of a hockey hotbed environment and you can’t market the game and fill the rink night after night and sell the merchandise at a very significant level and generate stars in that local team – then you can do better. And I hope to work with the NHL and work with Mr. Bettman and work with the member clubs to give them some ideas, to offer our assistance, to bring some expertise and to do a better job of marketing. Because we owe it to the players and frankly we owe it to the fans.” – Kelly on marketing the game.
“It was never an issue or a question. My decision to take this job had very little to do with money or salary … I don’t think I’m giving up any secrets in saying that I was a pretty easy mark. They made a certain proposal to me and I was pretty easy and pretty flexible. And much of the salary structure is based upon incentives. If I’m not able to establish goals and objectives, and to meet those objectives and goals in the next several months or the next several years, then I’m not going to get rich. And I’m not looking to get rich. I had a very successful law practice in Boston that paid me an awful lot of money and I’m leaving that behind because this is a job that I very desperately believe that I can do and I’m really looking forward to doing. And money is not the driving factor.” – Kelly on his salary.
“I’ve read some of the stories and they might have characterized me as some sort of militant, someone that’s just going to take an aggressive position with the NHL and fight them all the way. But anyone that knows me knows that that’s just not my style. As a trial lawyer, we get into court rooms with adversaries in very difficult cases, many times with peoples’ lives on the line, and we just slog it out, we just bash each other, we say things, we ask questions and we make arguments that should lead the two of us to have to have this deep hatred for one another. But at the end of the day, we step out of that courtroom and we are friends and we have a healthy professional respect for one another. And I can’t think of a lawyer that I have had cases with in over 27 years with which I have a bad relationship. . . . Are there instances where the players rightfully should expect me to be tough and tenacious on their behalf? Absolutely. And when it’s appropriate, that’s what I will be. But I think back to something my parents told me growing up, ‘treat people the way you want to be treated.’ I expect to reach out to the NHL, to reach out to the owners, and to work with them, not just in the marketing and growing of the game but in all aspects of the sport.” – Kelly on working with the NHL.