“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.