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Campbell's Cuts: Why an NHLPA leadership change matters to fans

Paul Kelly was let go by the NHLPA just less than two years after he was hired. (Getty Images)

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Paul Kelly was let go by the NHLPA just less than two years after he was hired. (Getty Images)

The natural inclination among hockey fans upon hearing that NHL Players’ Association executive director Paul Kelly was fired Monday was likely a yawn accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders.

After all, a bunch of internal squabbling among a bunch of millionaires isn’t likely to generate much public interest or sympathy. And people certainly can’t be blamed for not wanting to devote one iota of emotional energy to this group.

The fact of the matter is, not one single thing will change on the ice as a result of Kelly’s ouster, nor will anything be different between the whistles when the new man (or woman) takes over. For the next three seasons, fans won’t have to worry much about how dysfunctional and predatory the NHLPA’s head office has become. For all most fans care, the union can go on devouring its own and the game won’t be any different.

But there are a number of reasons why, as a hockey fan, you should be concerned about the putsch a small, but vocal and radical group of players pulled off in Chicago in the wee hours of Monday morning.

In firing Kelly, the players made it abundantly clear they are not pleased with the current direction of their association’s affairs. There are allegations Kelly was too media friendly, a little too cozy with those who occupy the upper reaches of the NHL and the fact that he didn’t connect as well with the players as they hoped he would.

It’s funny, really. Remember the good old days when integrity and competence carried a certain amount of weight? Kelly, a former federal prosecutor, has those two qualities in abundance. Obviously, the players don’t put a whole lot of stock into those virtues these days.

The players, it seems, also made it very clear they want a much different type of leader in place this time around. That means whoever ends up taking this job fulltime, whether it’s Eric Lindros or Ron Pink or Ian Penny, will do so armed with a steel glove on his fist rather than a velvet one.

And why should fans care about that? Because the next collective bargaining agreement comes up for renewal after the 2011-12 season, which is just three years from now. Not that Kelly would have necessarily been able to come up with a deal that would both please the players and avoid another lockout, but there’s little doubt the whole dynamic between the league and its players is about to take a radical turn.

Let’s say the NHLPA gets a leader in there who kicks asses and takes no prisoners. Let’s say they hire a confrontational blowhard who is willing to make every issue a turf war. Well, how do you think that will play when it comes time to get another CBA?

The thing you need to know about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, assuming he’s still holding down the post in 2012, is that he not only does well in confrontation, he likes it the way Tie Domi used to like getting into fights. Bettman thrives on confrontation and will do anything he can to come out on top when he feels his authority is being undermined. Ask Bob Goodenow if Bettman likes confrontation. Ask Jim Balsillie the same question.

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In fact, I would argue that if Bettman were not up to his hips in turbulence over the situation with the Phoenix Coyotes, he’d probably be doing a little jig right now over what’s going on with the NHLPA these days.

What makes this all so confusing is that the players seem to want it both ways. Those who wanted to return to playing hockey went behind Goodenow’s back four years ago and negotiated a deal that got them on the ice and making big money. Many of those same players are now carping about having to put a good portion of their salaries into escrow in case revenues don’t grow along with expenses. The same players who needed someone to get them a deal were more than happy to throw Goodenow under the bus, but it seems now they want those very qualities in their new leader.

The fact is, the players will never, ever win the war against the owners for public sympathy because the average fan perceives them as pampered millionaires who make tons of money doing something they think they’d do for free. But Kelly and his less confrontational approach were making some inroads in that area, while still managing to make some gains for the players.

That will almost certainly be replaced by bluster and fire and brimstone. At the very least, it will change the relationship between the league and the players. At the very worst, it could mean we get to go another year without hockey in 2012.

Given the philosophical differences between the two sides, the lockout four years ago was inevitable. Another one is not, but the likelihood of one happening three years down the road just got a whole lot higher.

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.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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