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Campbell's Cuts: Was Kelly ousting an NHLPA coup?

Paul Kelly lasted less than two years as the NHLPA's executive director. (Photo courtesy of the NHLPA)

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Paul Kelly lasted less than two years as the NHLPA's executive director. (Photo courtesy of the NHLPA)

As NHL players start to get settled into their training camps, there is more and more talk among them concerning their union’s ouster of executive director Paul Kelly last month. And while it would probably be a stretch to suggest there’s a groundswell of support for Kelly, there is little doubt players are beginning to pose some hard questions and want some answers from those who decided Kelly’s fate.

“You’re absolutely right, there’s an awful lot of conversation going on among the players,” said Chris Chelios, who was a part of the meeting in Chicago where Kelly was dismissed. “We’re trying to figure out what happened. Players are going to have to find out how this could have happened to us again and then, obviously we’re going to have to make some decisions. There’s all kinds of questions about the process.”

In fact, Chelios said there will be a conference call among the membership “in the near future” to address their concerns. It’s almost certainly too late to save Kelly’s job as too much has happened, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of the members of the advisory board were replaced and the union’s constitution was altered – again – to give some powers back to the executive director.

And who do the players have to thank for this? None other than Alan Eagleson and Ted Saskin, who made them look like dumb jocks. As a result, the pendulum has swung back too far the other way and the executive director is essentially impotent. For example, he has no power over directing or hiring or firing the ombudsman, the advisory board, general counsel or the division representatives. Those who suggest Kelly should have cleaned house when he took the job don’t realize that he had no power under the constitution to do so.

One the one side, you have the players who form the NHLPA’s executive committee, who have remained rather tight-lipped about the firing, saying that it was justified on a number of fronts and pointing to Kelly accessing the contents of a meeting to discuss his leadership as grounds for the firing. The NHLPA could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Kelly forces, which include a number of veteran players, maintain the firing was nothing more than a palace coup orchestrated by general counsel Ian Penny, advisory counsel board members Ron Pink and Ian Troop, former ombudsman Eric Lindros and interim ombudsman Buzz Hargrove.

They continue to feel that the meeting in Chicago where Kelly was dismissed was a sham and that Penny and Hargrove pressed them into a vote at 3:45 a.m. because they knew the result wouldn’t have gone their way had they had the benefit of sober second thought and a good night’s sleep.

Other revelations, which have come to light via sources close to the situation who spoke to The Hockey News on a condition of anonymity, include:

• Of the five players on the executive committee who voted against dismissing Kelly, four of them were Chelios, Shawn Horcoff of the Edmonton Oilers, Adam Burish of Chicago Blackhawks and Manny Malhotra of the Columbus Blue Jackets. For the record, Chelios would not say which way he voted and what his feelings were on the issue. It is interesting to note, however, he did deliver the statement from the NHLPA on the firing the day after it occurred.

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• Not only was Penny’s contract extended for five years without Kelly’s input, which, according a source, violates the constitution, but the hiring of Hargrove and the move to hire out consultant Anne Marie Turnbull to conduct a review of Kelly’s leadership using NHLPA funds also violated the constitution.

The executive board consists not only of the 30 player representatives, but it also includes the executive director as chairman, the general counsel and the ombudsman. The players are allowed to vote on matters that concern the executive director without him, but all other matters, such as striking a committee to review the office environment, the extension of the general counsel’s contract, the hiring of a new ombudsman and the hiring of an outside consultant, must include input from the executive director.

• After Lindros quit as ombudsman, Hargrove was hired without Kelly’s input or knowledge and was given a yearly salary of $130,000, despite the fact the ombudsman’s job description calls for him to work no more than a few hours per week. Hargrove was a member of the advisory board at the time.

• The movement among players was spearheaded not only by Andrew Ference of the Boston Bruins, but also Matt Stajan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Kelly has taken his share of criticism for his decision to access the minutes of a meeting from which he was excluded. Fair enough, but if that’s the case, what about the cabal of people who purportedly violated the NHLPA’s own constitution? Did they not do a disservice to the 700-plus players who are their constituents?

In time we’ll all find out. And it appears as though the players will as well.

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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