Although he was just six weeks into his new job as executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, Paul Kelly already was in the midst of a whirlwind fall introductory tour that would see him visit all 30 teams by New Year’s Day.
In doing so, Kelly has had a quick acclimation period, something evident in his mid-December phone interview with The Hockey News for our People of Power and Influence issue.
Here is Part 1 of the full, unedited interview; Part 2 – in which Kelly discusses making further changes to the game, new ways in which to market the NHL, and the likelihood of another work stoppage – will appear on THN.com Jan. 3.
The Hockey News: You’re nearly two-thirds of the way through your first tour of team meetings. What has that process been like?
Paul Kelly: It’s been phenomenally interesting and informative. The beginning part of the process is pretty much an introductory thing, introducing myself and my background, how I view the roles and management of hockey, initial thoughts, ideas and goals I have for the association and the guys.
Then we go into a couple of important developments in the coming months, and we go from there into probably the most important part of it, which is interactive give-and-take with the players, and that goes on for about 45 minutes and covers a range of topics, (including) equipment, schedule, rules issues, health and safety issues. And that’s the part of it frankly that I enjoy the most – hearing different perspectives from different guys.
Universally I would say, when players are leaving these meetings, we get the most pleasant, positive feedback from the guys, either in regards to how different the meeting was from past experiences, or some weren’t planning to come or dreaded coming, but (after the meeting) they were really pleased they did come.
Here’s an example – the other day, we were in Washington when the Rangers were in town, and at the end of our session with the Rangers, Jaromir Jagr came up and said to me, ‘You know, I wasn’t going to come, the other guys kind of convinced me to come.’ But he said, ‘I’m really glad I came, this was a great meeting, I’ve really learned a lot, and this was terrific.’ And he was the last guy to leave – he stayed about 20 minutes past the last other Rangers player, just to talk.
We get a lot of that. So it’s a very encouraging, rewarding experience.
THN: Has anything surprised you so far?
PK: The fact we’ve got so many guys who’ve spent so much time thinking not just about the sport on the ice itself, but about interesting, new and creative ways we should be out there marketing the sport and connecting with the sport.
There have been two or three guys on every team, who during or after the (introductory) meeting come up and talk about TV issues or scheduling issues or playing overseas, different ways to cover the game. We’ve got some really bright guys who think outside the box and have a lot to offer.
THN: Let’s talk about Eric Lindros’s role as the union’s new ombudsman now. I know he works independently from you, but how important is he to the process?
PK: I think he’s enjoyed it and learned a lot along the way. And his role is important. He’s not a natural public speaker, but he’s become better at it as we’ve gone through the process.
Particularly for the young players, when they enter the room and look at Eric Lindros, you see a lot of admiration and respect the younger guys have for him. But what strikes me in listening to Eric and watching him is the sincerity of his commitment to these guys. He really is so totally focused on trying to make things better, and make things work.
You can’t help but admire his passion when you watch him address these guys. He’s been a critical part of the process.
THN: You recently spoke at the latest board of governors meetings. What were your initial impressions of (a) owners and their representatives, and (b) NHL leadership?
PK: Walking into that room, there was an air of tension. It’s clear most of the people in the room did not know me, did not know my attitudes or views, and they were incredibly gracious and respectful.
I probably spoke to them for close to 45 minutes, then answered some questions. When I finished talking, they applauded very generously, and I shook hands with everyone in the room. It seemed like a couple of hundred people in the room, and then I had the opportunity to join them for dinner and talk in either small groups or 1-on-1.
In some instances, it was owners welcoming us to come down to their arenas; in other instances, they were asking for our assistance and welcoming our input into some marketing efforts. I think it was really an important thing; I came away with a better understanding of their concerns, and their efforts; they have a much better understanding of who I am and what I hope to do in terms of my representation of these players.
And I think the reciprocal side of these things is important. I think it’s vital we extend an invitation to (NHL commissioner) Gary (Bettman) to come to our meetings, and I know he will come, and I think for him to address the players and their questions is something that ought to happen. I think it’s constructive.
THN: What is the NHLPA’s position on expansion, as well as a potential increase in the number of Canadian franchises?
PK: It’s an interesting issue, because on the one hand, every issue involved in the sport, we as an association need to be consulted on before important decisions are taken. And I’ve stressed that to the owners; we don’t want to learn about matters after the fact, and we want a voice in the process. They’re talking about partnership and working together, and we share that goal.
But expansion is one of those issues where, if you read the terms of the CBA, technically we don’t have a great voice in the process. So hopefully that’s an instance where the league and the owners go beyond the plain language of the CBA and do confer and consult with us extensively before they make any decisions.
That being said, I understand they are only at a very preliminary stage in talking about the possibility of expansion, and that no decisions have been made. I don’t know whether I favor expansion or not, until I see what the plans are; it would have to make sense for the membership, it would have to make sense for the fans, it would have to make sense for the game, the traditions of the game.
Certainly, if there ever was to be expansion, I think I would support having one of the teams be placed in Canada. If they were going to add two teams, I certainly would advocate one of those teams be placed in Canada, whether it was Hamilton or Winnipeg. But nobody’s ever asked my opinion, and I’m not so sure expansion is the way to go. But we’re at least open-minded to hear what the NHL has to say, and why they believe expansion is in the best interest of not only the owners, but the players, the fans, and the history of the game.
THN: You’ve already spoken publicly about a significant number of NHLers wanting the instigator rule repealed. If the owners agree to remove it, how does that help a league that, to my knowledge, is the only one that allows its players to self-police?
PK: I don’t know what the view of the owners is on the instigator rule, other than the fact that it was mentioned to me by certain owners at the Pebble Beach (Board of Governors) meetings that certain individuals favored at least, if not a removal of the rule, certainly a significant modification of the rule.
Certain people on the management side of hockey did express what is obvious, which is that removal of the instigator rule probably creates a bit of a PR problem and issue, in terms of how certain segments of the public might receive that and whether or not they misread that as a signal of moving backwards, and bringing in more aggressiveness and more fighting back into the sport.
But we as players talk about it – and again, I express I’m only two-thirds of the way through (talking to all the players), so I can’t really tell you what our position is officially – but when we talk about it, we do so in the sense that the players do believe there’s a code of respect on the ice.
And they do believe there are certain players who, unfortunately, play a certain style of hockey which is not well-received by their colleagues, and potentially can be harmful to opposing players. And they believe that if the instigator rule was modified, it would deter that conduct by a handful of players, and you’ve got to bring that style of play under control. You can’t allow guys to be throwing elbows, and hitting the head, and hitting a defenseless player, and driving a guy into the glass from behind.
THN: Is that not more of an indirect condemnation of the league’s ability to apply supplemental discipline?
PK: No, I think it’s a recognition that, before you get to supplemental discipline or anything else, these issues of respect have to start with the players themselves. They need to talk about it, internalize it, and live it.
I mean, they’ve been talking about it for years; the reality is, they now have to look at incidents like the (Patrice) Bergeron hit, and recognize that at any moment, any one of them could be the victim of such a situation. Out of respect for their fellow competitors, steps have to be taken to alleviate certain reckless types of play. And if modification of the instigator rule helps to deter some of that play, then the players favor it.
At this point we’ve not spoken to all the teams, we do understand there’s a PR issue that goes with any modification of the rule. But we are looking at any possible alternative. We don’t think it should be solely the league’s responsibility to mete out discipline in an effort to control this behavior; we as an association, we the players, have a responsibility to step up and do our part, and this is just part of the dialogue.
THN: In your opinion, is the NHL’s culture of retribution a detriment to the game, or a selling point?
PK: I don’t think it’s a detriment to the game, but I also don’t think it’s a selling point. I don’t think people go to games because they think there’s going to be enhanced retribution in a particular contest.
I think true hockey fans respect guys – like the other night in the Pittsburgh game, you had Gary Roberts, who’s not known as a fighter, steps up to defend a teammate he felt had been the victim of a bit of a cheap shot – I think true hockey fans respect that loyalty to teammates. I don’t know that they look at that as retribution.
For example, as a hockey fan, I view that as looking out, sticking together, showing support for your teammates. I don’t know I categorize it as retribution, and I think frankly that successful teams over the years, including Anaheim last year, probably led the rest of the league in supporting their teammates and rushing to the defense of their teammates. It builds that cohesiveness in the locker room and on the ice surface that translates into winning hockey.
THN: You’ve also noted that coaches and their defense-first strategies can have an adverse effect on the ability of players to demonstrate their skills. If players are going to be educated on the benefits of a new approach to publicizing the NHL, shouldn’t coaches be included in that process as well?
PK: I think they should. It’s easier for coaches to coach defense than offense, and that’s coming from an old high school hockey coach, particularly in those years when I had less talent than other years. When I had a lot of talent, highly skilled players with good hands and fast feet, I let them go and play offense; in years where I lacked some of those guys, I backed people into the goal and made it difficult for the opposition to get shots and have shooting lanes. I think pro coaches work much the same way.
Part of the issue here is you’ve got too many coaches on the bench. You’ve got three, four guys on the bench, and as soon as players come back over the boards, the first thing that happens is some (coach) jumps in their ear, preaching defense, defense, defense, or an assistant calling down from the top of the rink.
Frankly, in an ideal world, if you could limit the number of coaches to one or two, you’d have fewer guys preaching defense all the time. Let these guys play; these are elite athletes, and if you let the players play a little bit more, I think you’d see less of the trap, less of the kind of filling in the slot, more of an openness to the game, and a more enjoyable brand of hockey.
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