The NHLPA's executive director isn't afraid to speak his mind on issues that affect the game. (Photo courtesy of the NHLPA)
In early August, I sat down with NHL Players’ Association executive director Paul Kelly in his Toronto office for an hour-long conversation regarding his first year on the job.
Portions of that interview – including Kelly’s thoughts on European expansion, building unity amongst his constituents, potential labor unrest, and more – can be found in my Proteau Type column that will appear in an upcoming issue of The Hockey News magazine.
However, because there were more noteworthy aspects to the interview than could fit into the column, here are some additional highlights:
THN: Let’s talk about the integration of European players into NHL upper management and coaching. Europeans account for 30 percent of the league’s players, yet there’s nowhere near the same representation off the ice. Is that a concern players speak to you about?
Paul Kelly: I haven’t really given that issue a great deal of thought, and I haven’t studied it, but my sense is there’s probably a few reasons for that. First, a lot of European guys go back home when their playing days are over, and those who do go home, I think a number of them become scouts for NHL teams in their home countries.
But it may be a cultural thing; they want to play, and they don’t necessarily want to find themselves in positions of authority. That’s my sense, but I think we’ll see some improvement in that regard over time.
We would like to see more European players become actively involved in what we do at the union. We were very pleased recently in Rome, where we had our European player meetings. We had a great turnout, and many of the guys in the room were prominent European players who were very interested in the business.
But we’d like to have more European guys as player reps. Last year, the only European player rep we had was Jarkko Ruutu, and we’d like to see more of a reflection of that 30 percent. And I’d like to see more European players on some of the committees we have.
THN: Turning to the NHL ownership picture, there’s a sense some observers get that there’s an elaborate shell game going on here, that the league is operating in a shaky U.S. economy, that three to five teams may be on the market. If there are teams that are relocated, do the players deserve to be heavily involved in the process?
PK: A couple things here: No. 1, we haven’t heard about any plans at all to relocate teams or to expand. But under the collective bargaining agreement, the players have no voice and no role, in a technical manner, as it pertains to relocation or expansion. And we don’t derive any financial benefit from that, which I think is a mistake.
If the league wants to consider us partners – which I think is a misnomer, but at least ‘joint venturers’ – then players ought to have a say in the relocation or expansion of teams and share in some of the revenues there.
My view is that it is difficult for some of those teams, particularly in the American sunbelt, where they don’t have the establishment of hockey at a youth level. I grew up in Boston and there were youth hockey leagues everywhere. Every town had two or three rinks in it, and the game was and is part of our upbringing there.
But if you’re in Phoenix or you’re in Florida, it’s really tough for those teams to put people in the seats and sell the game. We understand that and maybe the revenue-sharing system is part of the answer. But our view is that if teams in any region suffer (financial) losses three or four years in a row, then stop complaining about it in a (business) system you created and imposed here, and start asking the question whether you’re in the right place.
Rather than complain about it, maybe you ought to start saying, ‘Okay, folks, it ain’t working,’ and maybe you ought to find a place it will work.
THN: The Nashville ownership situation in particular has become somewhat of an embarrassment to the league. How can it better vet potential owners who could be frauds?
PK: You know, I was a federal prosecutor for 10 years and a white-collar practitioner for 12 years thereafter, so I know a little bit about due diligence and financial fraud. We at the NHLPA don’t get involved with any of this, but I think if someone is a sophisticated fraudster, they can conceal anything from anybody. It’s pretty hard to find.
I mean, is it troubling in general when you read about some stories that could be true where one owner loans a valuable chunk of money to another prospective owner without disclosing it to the league? Definitely, that’s a problem. Somebody should’ve thought about that at the time they were loaning money. But by-and-large, I believe we do have a group of owners who care about the game.
THN: The league and NHLPA worked together on the goalie-working group this summer. Was that a success?
PK: I think you’re going to see some of the results of that group this coming season and more results the year after that. I’m very proud of the goalie-working group because that’s an initiative that was spearheaded by the players. Players recommended it and players drove it, and this is one of those issues where meaningful change is going to have to come from the players.
Changes you’ll see next year are changes that could be made without altering the manufacturing processes of goalie equipment. So you’re going to see goalie pants get shortened a bit; you’re going to see some of the padding on the inner side of goalie pads be removed, strapped down or contoured; you’re going to see, in the upper body protector, these clavicle protectors cinched down, so that when a goalie goes into a crouch, the clavicle protector goes down with him.
These are changes that won’t impact the safety of the goaltender, but will open up some space for shooters. Now, will we see a meaningful change in the number of goals scored? I don’t know yet. I think goal-scoring is less a product of goalie equipment than it is a product of style of play – blocking the net with five of your players, that type of strategy.
But I think you’ll see some change in the goalies this season and more substantial change next year, because when the manufacturing issues kick in and we contour equipment in ways that ensure safety, but open up shooting space, you’re going to see real improvement.
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News' online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays in the summer, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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