Paul Kelly has been busy in his first months as union director, visiting each of the NHL\'s 30 teams.
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. Here is part two of the full, unedited interview (part one – in which Kelly discusses expansion, the instigator rule, and the over-coaching of the game – can be viewed here.)
The Hockey News: Sabres president Larry Quinn recently spoke at a board of governors meeting about establishing a research and development process to test potential changes to the game. Are the players open to such a process, and what role do you envision the NHLPA having in it?
Paul Kelly: We envision ourselves as having an equal role in all important decisions, so if there is going to be a process, clearly we want to be a major contributor to any innovations or creative changes to the game.
At some point, you can tinker with the game to the degree where it’s detrimental. Talk of bigger nets and changing this or that, I’m not so sure that people don’t need to just take a breath. I think we should back off the players a little bit, in terms of playing defense; I’d love to see them remove the trapezoid behind the net.
The theory there obviously was that a roaming goaltender, a Marty Brodeur type, somehow can stifle offensive play – I don’t buy that. I actually think the fans used to be excited when a goalie roamed into the corner and tripped and fell on his way back to the net, leaving the net open. That was fun to watch. I think players slow down now that they come into the offensive zone, because they see the goalie behind the net in the trapezoid and are worried that they’re going to hit the goalie and take a penalty.
I think they (the NHL rulemakers) tinker with little changes that I don’t know always enhance the game. If you let the guys play, let them show some of their natural abilities, the real grace of the game will come out, and it will be more user-friendly for the fans. Yeah, fine, if they want to look at other potential changes down the road, we’re happy to sit at the table and provide our thoughts, but I’m not one to rush to be tweaking the game each and every season. I don’t think that’s healthy.
THN: The size of goaltenders’ equipment seems to be an area in which many industry observers feel there is room for improvement. How does the NHLPA plan to address the issue?
PK: We’re talking about it with the teams. I think what we’re considering as an association, at the recommendation of many of the players, is an internal committee of three or four goaltenders, maybe a veteran guy, maybe a young guy, to really talk about this issue not just among themselves, but with equipment manufacturers.
Our view is that, first and foremost, goaltending equipment must be at a level that ensures the health and safety of goaltenders. If in the process of downsizing goaltending equipment, you enhance the possibility of an injury to a goaltender, we’re going to oppose it.
If there’s a way to safely tweak it – squeeze the chest protector, squeeze the pants a little – I think our guys would certainly consider it, so long as it’s across the board, equally applied. I don’t think goaltenders are adverse to those types of modifications if they generate more scoring; it’s not tinkering with the rules of the game.
But in response to this, too, there are a number of factors that may contribute to fewer goals being scored. First and foremost, it’s coaching style, or it’s the size of goaltender equipment, but it’s also about ice conditions. And I think frankly that there’s been an unfortunate deterioration of the ice condition in certain arenas, because they load the arenas with multiple events.
For example, having watched the Capitals/Rangers game (recently) in Washington, it was too warm in that building. It was simply too warm, and it had to affect the ice surface.
And I think that goaltenders are simply playing better. They’re more athletic, they’ve perfected a certain style of play, and they’re just tougher to beat than they were 15 years ago. Even if you took some of the goaltenders of today, the Brodeurs and the Luongos, and you stuck them into Gerry Cheevers’ equipment, they’d play the same way and stop just as many shots.
THN: Your thoughts on mandatory visors?
PK: That’s a big issue we talk about all the time. I tell the players that, when it comes to visors, there are basically three ways to go: you can make them mandatory, starting tomorrow; you can grandfather them in, so that everyone new to the league has to start wearing them; or you can go with players’ choice.
Right after I tell them what the obvious options are, I tell them, ‘Look guys, a single eye injury can cost you your career. It is really essential to protect your eyes, and on behalf of the players’ association, I strongly recommend guys put visors on.’
That said; I understand that some guys have played in the league 15, 17 years, they’ve got a year or two to go, and they’ve played their entire lives without a visor. Can some guy who’s never skated in the NHL come in and suddenly dictate to them that they should slap a visor on? I don’t think that’s my place, and frankly my role is to give them the best advice and counsel I can, but then to represent what the players believe is in their best interest.
At this point, I will tell you we’ve had a wide divergence of views expressed by players. It’s too early for me to tell you, even when we finish talking to the final 10 teams (in the fall tour), how we will come down on the issue as an association. But I will tell you I’m encouraged by a lot of the comments I’ve heard from the guys. They’re really focused on health and safety issues. It’s a serious issue for us, and hopefully in a month or so, we’ll have a better notion of where we want to go with it.
But even if we took no action, and I’m not suggesting we won’t, I just think there’s going to be a steady, dramatic increase in visor usage. Because I think guys are getting the message that they should put a visor on, there are more young guys and European guys coming into the league, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 20 (percent) spike in the number of players wearing visors next year, and another 15 percent spike the year after that.
Even left to its own natural evolution, visor use will become pretty much unanimous in a matter of two or three years.
THN: Improving the marketing of the game has been a common goal of the NHL for decades, yet little progress has been made. What are some of your opinions on ways to finally make some headway in this area?
PK: I’ll make three or four quick points:
One is U.S. television. I commend Versus for their broadcasts, but we need broader reach, broader coverage, reaching a greater number of homes, on more nights, with more highlights. We need something that’s even half of what you have here in Canada, and we don’t have it in the United States.
If I’m in a certain city and I want to watch a hockey game, I go hunting around the TV dial, I go past ESPN – which has a poker game on – and I can’t find a hockey game because many of the places I go to don’t have Versus on the dial. It’s unacceptable.
So Item One for me is that we have to enhance the television coverage of this sport in the United States. And I personally would like to see us on ESPN and Versus, as well as continuing on NBC for some of those games.
Item Two is that we need to focus on the globalization of the sport. It’s important for us to showcase our game, not only live, overseas, in Europe, in Russia, and perhaps in the Far East, but we also need to enhance the television and Internet availability of the sport in those markets, the merchandising of the sport in those markets.
I hear from some players from the Czech Republic and elsewhere that family members and friends of theirs can’t get their games either on TV or computer, and that’s a problem. If they can’t watch the games of their hometown heroes, we’re not doing something we should be doing, and that’s an untapped area we need to develop.
Item Three – the Players’ Association is currently in the process of hiring a U.S.-based sports marketing consultant, someone who has vast and successful experience marketing one of the other pro sports, who can help us to not only open a satellite office in the States – most likely, New York – to better craft our strategic approach to promoting this game through licensing opportunities, advertising opportunities, television, print and radio advertising, but using these handsome young stars of our games in more commercial ways than we have in the past.
Poor Sidney Crosby – he goes on a Western (Canada) swing, and he’s inundated with requests for interviews. It has to affect his ability and energy level, and I understand that. But we need to get our guys, their faces, their images, out there in the United States in ways we haven’t done so previously.
The last thing I’d say is that…we are concerned about instances in which we hear of media outlets, particularly in the U.S., pulling back their coverage, not sending beat reporters on the road, not devoting the time and space to the sport that it deserves and warrants.
And we are making a concerted effort to reach out to the media outlets, print media in particular, as we travel around North America. And the more attention that’s devoted to the sport, it all translates into more bodies in the seats, more people watching on television, greater revenues for the sport.
THN: The league and NHLPA’s drug-testing program has been criticized by some for not being thorough enough in its scope. Are you happy with the current system as it stands right now? You and I are talking on the day Major League Baseball’s Mitchell Report (on performance-enhancing abuse) was released; is there something the league and union can do to ensure we don’t see something similar happen to hockey players?
PK: This is not an issue I’ve yet to fully embrace, because I’ve only been here for six weeks, and I’ve had a bunch of other things on my plate. But No. 1 – I don’t know we’ve ever had a serious drug issue in this sport. I say that not because I have some super-knowledge about the issue, but having been around the sport for a long, long time, I don’t know that we’ve had the issue that baseball and football and (pro) wrestling have had over the years.
That said, having looked at the drug-testing policies, it seems like we’re kind of out front of most of the other sports. Now I did read an article the other day, and I can’t remember what newspaper it was in, but it said our testing program wasn’t covering some possible substance people can take.
Look, I was a federal prosecutor in the United States for many, many years, and prosecuted a great number of drug cases. I am anti-drug generally speaking, and I am not in favor of performance-enhancing substances. If there was some way we could strengthen our drug-testing program, and make sure our athletes are not only playing the game fair and square, but not doing something that will jeopardize their own heath and safety, then I am going to be a big supporter of that.
Having said that, to date I haven’t had an opportunity to fully study our program and find out if it has shortcomings that need to be addressed.
THN: Some fans remain fearful the NHL will suffer through another lockout or work stoppage. What would you say to those fans?
PK: If the NHL approaches these issues in the coming years in an honest and good-faith manner, then we will not suffer future labor interruptions or work stoppages. If the NHL behaves unreasonably or tries to take unfair advantage of the players or their family, and takes positions which I think are inconsistent, not only with the best interests of the players, but the best interests of the game and the best interests of the fans, then that will be most unfortunate.
But the players won’t be the party to pick that fight. We are very mindful of the fact that another labor interruption in this sport would be extremely harmful, and I intend to do everything in my power to avoid that happening. That said, my entire professional career has been spent as a trial lawyer, as an advocate, as an adversary; if the NHL wants to pick a fight, then frankly, that’s what I do best.
Having said that, I don’t think they want that fight. I know the sport doesn’t need that fight, and I would rather us, as smart businessmen, work through these problems for the benefit of the history of the sport.
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