Paul Kelly lost his job early Monday morning for reasons that are so preposterous it risks making the NHL Players’ Association the laughingstock of the sports world.
The executive director of the NHLPA was on the job and had yet to negotiate a single collective bargaining agreement for his constituents, yet was fired because he hadn’t turned every single issue with the league into a turf war.
He didn't steal millions of dollars and get convicted of his crimes the way Alan Eagleson did. He didn’t get the job under false pretenses and spy on members’ emails the way Ted Saskin did.
No, the reason why Kelly was fired is that he’s not Bob Goodenow, the guy the players dumped when they found he was taking too hard a line against their employers and wouldn’t deliver them what he thought was a namby-pamby CBA during the lockout.
If the players think the payout they had to make to Saskin was a lot of money, they’ll be staggered by the amount they’ll have to give Kelly to go away.
And that’s because Kelly might have one of the all-time cases for wrongful dismissal. The uprising against Kelly was led by former ombudsman Eric Lindros, advisory board head Ron Pink and interim ombudsman Buzz Hargrove, along with some others within the current ranks of the NHLPA.
So think about it. The ringleaders in Kelly’s dismissal are a former player who has run up against the establishment at every turn and resigned from the PA because he couldn’t work with Kelly (Lindros); the man who didn’t get the job when the PA decided Kelly would be a better choice (Pink); and one of the most confrontational labor leaders of our generation (Hargrove).
They represent the old guard of the association whose philosophy was to oppose the league on every single issue and make a confrontation out of everything possible. All of which is fine, if that’s the way the union wants to do business it certainly has the right to conduct itself in that manner.
But the question is, if that’s what it wanted, why was Goodenow shown the door in the first place and why was he replaced by Kelly, who had made it clear from the start that he was going to conduct the association’s business in a less confrontational way?
Goodenow was deemed to be expendable when the players looked at the possibility of missing two years of paychecks and promptly soiled their pants. One season had already been wasted and even though Goodenow told players long before the lockout to prepare to sit out for as long as two seasons, when push came to shove, the players opted to get back to playing hockey and making money.
And despite the so-called salary cap, the players are doing better than they ever have before. Big money for stars hasn’t gone away and the uncertainty surrounding the cap has given many of them the luxury of job security they never had under the old deal. The players are continuing to fight for the NHL to be involved in the Olympics against the league’s instincts and continue to work with the league on what was supposed to be a new era of partnership.
And it’s not as though Kelly had been sitting there twiddling his thumbs. Under Kelly’s stewardship, the CBA had already been changed to allow teams to offer contract extensions to entry-level players a year before their contracts are set to expire and Kelly had also made valuable gains for the players when it came to the way money for international events is paid out.
He did that by being conciliatory and firm, not confrontational and obnoxious. That’s his style and the players should have known exactly what they were getting when they hired him. Shame on them for changing gears two years into Kelly's mandate.
It appears Kelly’s body of work was not enough to satisfy a few disgruntled militants in the association’s ranks. Normally, the tendency would be to dismiss the radical faction, but this is the NHLPA we’re talking about and the movement to get rid of Saskin was started by a very small grassroots group as well.
The NHLPA rids itself of Kelly at its own peril. And until the membership decides what it wants to be and what kind of relationship it wants with the NHL, the revolving door in the executive director’s office will remain firmly in place.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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