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Kelly's ouster by NHLPA militants portends big trouble

A message, courtesy of the NHLPA, for the damned soul who eventually replaces Paul Kelly as the executive director of that august athletic union:

Approach any and all dealings with the NHL with ill humor and malice aforethought.

And watch your back.

Kelly, whose only failing during his nearly two-year tenure may have been ignoring those warnings himself, was marched to the guillotine after a palace coup at 3:30 Monday morning. He was replaced Monday evening on an interim basis by general counsel Ian Penny, a holdover from the Bob Goodenow era who recently was granted a long-term contract extension without Kelly's knowledge.

Hoping for some kind of smoking gun to justify the dismissal? Don't hold your breath.

Oh, the PA may eventually trot out some minor technical breach bearing Kelly's fingerprints, but there's no rush. The union no doubt understands that any explanation it offers the public now is likely to be met with a healthy degree of skepticism born of Kelly's clean, 25-year record of service and the NHLPA's own history as the most dysfunctional union in all of pro sports.

So at least give them credit for not being wholly disingenuous. Because this wasn't about thievery like the ouster of Alan Eagleson or gross misconduct like the dismissal e-mail snooper Ted Saskin. Kelly simply wasn't militant enough to suit the mood of the small cabal determined to extract revenge on the NHL for the perceived injustices of the last CBA. And that was reason enough to dig around for grounds to kick him to the curb.

Chris Chelios -- and was anyone surprised to see this Hall of Fame-caliber malcontent front and center for this debacle? -- said as much on Monday afternoon.

"We're potentially only two seasons away from the expiration at the end of the CBA either 2010-11 or 2011-12 at the PA's option," he said. "So we feel now's the time to make a move and ensure we have the optimal leadership."

In other words, start loading up the war chest, boys. Come 2011, we're looking at a another looooooong off-season.

It's hard to understand why the players allow Chelios, who appears to have no future in the league, to assay such a pivotal role affecting the fate of their union. Or how Eric Lindros, the former ombudsman with no current standing in the PA, continues to wield influence over the group. Or how his interim replacement Buzz Hargrove, a man who made a career of contentious labor relations during his previous life as head of the Canadian Auto Workers, could get a position within the group, let alone assert himself as a powerful voice both inside the PA and, now, in public.

One thing, however, is clear: by removing Kelly before he had the chance to involve himself in a single major negotiation, the PA has reverted to its old, sordid ways and re-defined the type of relationship it wants with the NHL and, by extension, the fans of the game.

Yes, the fans. It's hard not to read this as a slap in the face of the paying customers who, thanks to Kelly's common sense approach, learned to forgive and forget after the last labor imbroglio wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season.

Kelly was hired back in Oct. 2007 as the antithesis to former union head Goodenow and charged with building a more progressive relationship with the league. That, after all, was the basis of the CBA he inherited -- a deal that would see both sides profit through a more focused, cohesive approach to marketing the game.

Under Kelly's leadership, the union took on a more centrist profile. Going along to get along on issues of mutual benefit. And it worked. That whole "rising tide lifts all ships" bit may not fly in the real world, but judging by the contracts handed out over the past couple years, union members seemed to be doing alright in this new era of fraternity.

Still, there were some who saw any expression of civility extended toward the NHL as proof that Kelly was Gary Bettman's lapdog. Conveniently, they overlooked Kelly taking the league to task over the American TV deal with Versus, when he suggested it was time to make a concerted effort to get the game back on ESPN. They must have put on their earmuffs when he spoke loudly about the desire of the players to continue their Olympic participation past 2010 and the need to abandon to weaker markets (ahem, Phoenix) for more profitable ground in Canada. And maybe they were watching tapes of old Goodenow speeches when Kelly fought for elimination of the instigator rule and against the mandatory use of visors.

Truth is, Kelly compiled a strong record for a labor leader between negotiations. But it wasn't enough to keep the group's more militant faction happy. Angered by their marginalization under Kelly -- and, according to one source, an internal audit that questioned spending practices in the union, though that point's been disputed by the NHLPA -- they worked a masterful smear campaign to get him out of their way.

And now that group -- led by Chelios, Hargrove, Lindros and lawyer Ron Pink (a man bypassed two years ago for Kelly's job) -- will lead the search for the next tip of the spear, the guy who no doubt will lead them into a nasty battle with the NHL over the elimination of the salary cap...a battle that likely would shut down the game for an extended period.

But before they make their selection, it might behoove them to dig into their own recent history. Goodenow ultimately failed as the union's leader because he couldn't convince the rank and file that they needed to hold out for two seasons to wear down the owners. After losing that 2004-05 battle, and after seeing the number of players who never made it back after the formal end of hostilities, is there any reason to believe they have the stomach for another winter spent puttering around the house?

The truth is, as a group, the players are far more interested in playing the game than in having their lawyers beat up the league's lawyers. The anti-Kelly cabal shouldn't mistake a silence bred by disinterest in PA matters for a mandate to pursue this course. Whoever takes the reins has to do more than convince guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Roberto Luongo and Vincent Lecavalier to give up another year or more of their careers to fight another quixotic battle. He'll also have to win over the legion of third- and fourth-liners who've learned how easily replaceable they are.

As one former PA rep said Tuesday morning, "Whoever it is, I think he'll have a lot tougher sell next time around."

The player, who said he'd yet to hear from his team's current rep about the grounds for dismissal, wondered about the quality of candidates that would be offered as Kelly's replacement.

"I don't even know who'd want the job at this point," he continued. "Who'd feel safe when everyone always has their knives out?"

Good point. Around this group, a job well done offers no guarantees.

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