Friday September 4th, 2009

You hear that?

Awfully quiet, wouldn't you say? By this point, weren't we all expecting a chorus of players to rise up and criticize the cloak of darkness that surrounds that sacking of NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly? And what have we got?


Four days have passed. The 27 men who voted to end Kelly's promising two-year tenure have brought the evidence back to teammates who now have had plenty of time to digest it. But while there are reports of unnamed players being furious with the decision, no one's yet been willing to step forward and make this their summer of discontent. When asked for their thoughts, most mumble a variation of "It was a tough decision, but that's what we elected the reps for."

Curious, isn't it?

Has to mean one of two things. Either the rank and file have heard the evidence and support the decision to dump Kelly, or they're at least in lock-step to give the impression that they do.

Bet on the latter.

"We've made a conscious decision to be respectful," Boston player rep Andrew Ference told "We passed along a message -- we're not here to get into a junior high yelling match. We want to be respectful of Mr. Kelly and take the high road. We don't need to be tossing around the details.

"I've heard that it's not helping us [win a PR battle], but this is what the players are comfortable with. We want to be professional about it."

Kelly's been professional about it, too, speaking mostly in glowing terms of his former employers. "I have enormous respect and admiration for the players. Enormous respect for the staff at the NHLPA, who are a bright, energetic, fabulous group of people to work with," he told Toronto's AM 640. "I just want to say that my efforts at the NHLPA were always designed and intended to protect players."

Nothing there to damage his reputation as a thoughtful moderate. But the tone changed a bit on Thursday morning when it leaked out that Kelly was let go after accessing minutes of a private meeting of the PA's advisory board. Two sources within the PA wouldn't confirm the story, but they wouldn't deny it, either.

Oddly, neither did Kelly in his Pitino-esque rebuttal.

"I cannot stand by and allow this false and misleading attack on my character and reputation," he said in a statement released later that day. "I spent almost 10 years as a federal prosecutor, prosecuting numerous cases pertaining to fraud and dishonesty, including one involving a former NHLPA executive director. My personal ethics and reputation are beyond reproach.

"All of these stories, whether anonymous or by those seeking to protect their individual interests, intend to defame my reputation and good name. They not only harm me, but do harm to the reputation of the over 700 hockey players who make our sport the best in the world."

But without issuing a specific denial, standing by is exactly what Kelly did.

Kelly's defenders -- again off-the-record to avoid confirming the charge -- suggest that he accessed the minutes of the meeting to address concerns that the group's constitution had been violated. That it had been was beside the point to the players. Although they went back and corrected their error, they remain sensitive to any invasion of privacy after e-mail snooping led to the dismissal of Kelly's predecessor, Ted Saskin.

At least we're starting to understand why players haven't rushed to his defense.

But if this was the smoking gun, it wasn't a particularly high caliber. Given Kelly's track record, it seems like the sort of incident that could have been addressed through a formal reprimand and a firm reminder of the parameters of his office. That it wasn't suggests there has to be more to the story. Either there were significant additional grievances that have yet to be revealed -- unlikely -- or Kelly really was the victim of a witch hunt as many, including this c

Even if the working stiffs don't want to stick out their necks to defend their deposed leader, the time is now to raise their voices about the direction the union will take in the future.

Because that future's coming quickly.

"Next week we'll put together a group of three or four players to serve as a search committee," Ference told "We'll explore our options [for replacing Kelly] from there. The last time, we used a search firm that gave us a list of candidates and we did our interviews and chose from there. This time we could use several [search firms]. That's going to be up to the search committee."

Ference anticipates that the process will take approximately four months, a time frame that doesn't leave the incoming executive director much time to lay the groundwork for the next round of CBA talks. The agreement expires at the end of the 2010-11 season, though the PA has an option to extend it one year.

"One thing we discussed in Chicago is that the transition for whoever comes in next has to be seamless. We need to make sure our goals are clearly defined so he can hit the ground running," Ference said.

He understands why fans might be leary about those goals. While Atlanta Thrashers rep (and current Maple Leaf) Garnet Exelby raised the threat level by suggesting that the owners were holding players "hostage" under the current CBA, Ference offered a more conciliatory tone.

"As soon as that person comes in, we want them to continue working with the league," he said. "We want to have that proactive approach. We don't want to send a message of militancy that just leaves the fans waiting for another work stoppage.

"But it's not a black-and-white issue. You can't have somebody that rolls over and gives the league everything it wants, but it's not about going the other way and becoming militant, either. We've seen that extreme hardline approach before and that's not what we're aiming for. You can have cooperation without agreeing to everything.

"We want that working relationship. That's important to us, the league, the fans and hockey in general."

Sure sounds like the new man should take his cues from the old man. But in order to attract that ideal candidate, Ference understands that his working conditions might need to be tweaked.

"We structured the organization to provide a series of checks and balances [in the aftermath of the last lockout], " he said. "We might have to look at that in terms of the perceived threat that Paul felt at certain times. Specific roles for different people within the union have to be clarified moving forward.

"But the ombudsman we deemed necessary coming out of last lockout. It's essential in most every organization. The advisory board is incredibly valuable, too. Whoever the next leader is will have people at his disposal with some great business and labor experience.

"Look," Ference continued. "there are a lot of Type-A personalities here and that means there's going to be some butting of heads. Some people would have difficulty working in that environment, but the right person will find a way to utilize those assets and make it a tremendous benefit."

Finding that right person won't be easy. If a man like Kelly, who was used to staring down mobsters, couldn't thrive in a fractious environment like that, you have to wonder who could...or who would want to.

In the meantime, the players have a unique opportunity. Teams will select their new PA representatives by mid-October. If they don't vote loudly for moderation now, it won't matter what, if anything, they say later.

Fired NHLPA boss defends his conduct

MUIR: Kelly's dismissal portends CBA battle

KELLEY: From Phoenix to the players, NHL is in chaos

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