Once again, the National Hockey League Players’ Association is looking for an executive director.
On Monday, the NHLPA’s executive board voted “overwhelmingly to relieve Paul Kelly of his duties as executive director, effective immediately.”
No reason was given in a statement from the NHLPA. But a review of Kelly’s performance over the summer produced a list of issues players had with his leadership, said Buzz Hargrove, the former Canadian Auto Workers boss who is now interim ombudsman for the NHLPA.
“I don’t think you can point to any one (issue) and I’m not prepared to name one,” he said, adding that “people had just lost confidence that Paul was the one” to lead the union.
The NHLPA executive board, which consists of one player representative from each of the 30 NHL teams, made the decision at its annual meeting in Chicago.
NHLPA general counsel Ian Penny will serve as the interim executive director while the association puts together a search committee to identify potential candidates for a replacement.
Hargrove said he would not be a candidate and could not say if the new boss would be an outsider or someone currently working for the union. Penny is thought to be a contender for the job.
Kelly, who had been on the job for less than two years, was not available for comment
Kelly succeeded Ted Saskin, who was let go in May 2007 amid allegations of monitoring players’ email. Saskin had taken over when Bob Goodenow stepped down under pressure from the players on July 28, 2005, only two weeks after a collective bargaining agreement was signed to end the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
The new executive director will be their fourth in only five years, which calls into question the stability of an organization that has appeared to be split into factions since the lockout, when for the first time a salary cap was accepted by the players.
Hargrove countered that rather than showing disunity, it proved that a system of checks and balances on management brought in when in Kelly was hired have worked.
He said following union discussions in Chicago in September 2008, a committee was formed at a meeting in Las Vegas in June to review Kelly’s leadership. The committee’s findings were debated in Chicago and the board opted to proceed with the firing.
The executive board said in a statement that it was aware it would appear to be in a mess to outsiders, but the firing had to be done.
“The easy thing to do as an executive board would have been to continue with Paul Kelly as our executive director,” the board said. “That would have been the best option from a short term, public relations standpoint.
“But this isn’t about public relations and the executive board had to make the decision we made in the best interests of our membership.”
It was important to act now so the new leader will have time to prepare for upcoming negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. The post-lockout CBA expires in September, 2011, although the NHLPA has an option to extend it for one year.
The board added that it was “unfortunate things didn’t work out with Paul Kelly.”
Some speculate that Kelly was not tough enough with the league, but the Boston lawyer who participated in the prosecution of NHLPA founder Alan Eagleson in the 1990s said on the day he was hired in 2007 that he wanted “a positive relationship between the NHLPA and the league.”
In June in Las Vegas, Kelly invited NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to address an NHLPA meeting for the first time.
But by then Kelly was already being questioned.
The first sign of discontent came in February, when former star player Eric Lindros resigned as the association’s ombudsman and sent a letter to members detailing his grievances with Kelly.
There were also reports that the executive committee broke its own rules by extending the Penny’s contract without consulting Kelly.
He was told of his firing during the players’ meeting on Sunday. Pat Flatley, a Kelly supporter and the assistant director of player affairs, resigned.
Until a new executive director is named, the union is in the hands of Penny, advisory board head Ron Pink and Hargrove, who is replacing Lindros.
Hargrove said the Kelly firing shows that management is closely watched by the players and that “you’d better do things as they say, not yourself.”
The NHLPA was formed in 1967 with Eagleson, a Toronto lawyer, as executive director. But while salaries rose and NHL players for the first time took part in international hockey under his reign, he came under suspicion for continuing to act as a player agent and as a promoter of events like the Canada Cup.
Eagleson resigned in 1992 and later was found guilty on racketeering and fraud charges in the United States and fraud and theft charges in Canada. He served six months of an 18-month prison sentence in Canada and was disbarred by the Law Society of Upper Canada.
Goodenow replaced him and took a more hardline approach to the league, but lost the support of many players during the 2004-05 lockout. While the collective bargaining agreement he signed has since worked out well for the players, it was seen at the time as a shattering defeat.
Saskin, who joined the association with Goodenow in 1992 as director of business affairs, brought a more conciliatory style to the job, but a bloc of discontented players led by veteran Chris Chelios accused him of being too cozy with league management and questioned the process by which he was hired.
The revelation of reading players’ email spelled his end.
Kelly was found by a five-player search committee consisting of Lindros, Chelios, Mike Cammalleri, Shawn Horcoff and Robyn Regehr, with the help of a Chicago headhunting firm.
Kelly said from the start he would not follow Goodenow’s style.
“If I had any healthy criticism for Bob, it was that he viewed every issue between the NHL Players’ Association and the league as adversarial and a fight,” Kelly said when he was first hired. “It got the point where frankly he had a difficult time even being in the same room with Gary Bettman and some of the owners. That’s not my style.”
Another issue for the incoming executive director will be differences with the league on Olympic participation. The NHL is leaning against having its players involved after the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, while many players want to continue playing at the Olympics.