Paul Kelly lasted a little less than two years as head of the NHLPA. (THN Archives)
When the NHL Players’ Association mysteriously fired Paul Kelly last week, we were left with a cliff-hanger of “Who Shot J.R.?” proportions.
What we got, for many days, was eerie silence from the union, leaving hockey analysts (including the other J.R.) to speculate and widely slam the association. It was a palace coup, a wrongful dismissal, a travesty…
The problem was nobody had all the facts. And we still don’t. But we are learning more as the days pass and coming to new realizations. Including:
• Kelly reportedly peeked at a document that wasn’t meant for his eyes. While Kelly has steadfastly defended his honor and spoken of a “false and misleading attack on his character and reputation,” he never categorically denied reading the minutes in question and there have been suggestions he was glimpsing it to see if the union’s constitution had been contravened.
• There were questions among some PA members surrounding Kelly’s leadership prior to the alleged “breach.” The executive had a meeting with its advisory board to address the issue during the NHL Awards period in Las Vegas.
• The executive was decisive in its decision to terminate Kelly’s contract (reportedly a 22-5 vote), a process that was determined by secret ballot.
• The union decided to keep its reasons for ousting Kelly quiet, knowing they’d face a public-relations nightmare. This decision was undertaken for a combination of reasons: a) few wanted to display the dirty laundry; b) the players still respect Kelly and didn’t want to engage in a potentially embarrassing cat fight; and, c) there was a contract to settle and public chatter could harm a potential severance agreement.
• Ian Penny, the interim executive director, has said he doesn’t want the job full-time, diminishing any motivation he may have had for a “coup.”
The point is, the story is becoming less white hat vs. black hat and slightly more grey.
Like most people who encountered Kelly in the hockey world, I respected him and the job he appeared to be doing. But I wasn’t on the inside of the association and privy to what the executive believes were shortcomings.
That they decided to terminate him doesn’t necessarily mean they think he was lacking integrity or that he did anything overtly wrong; it may simply mean they feel he wasn’t up to the job. It happens all the time in the corporate world. CEOs are hired, then fired within a year if they don’t meet expectations.
That Chris Chelios, a huge Kelly booster when the Boston prosecutor was hired, agreed with the decision to terminate him, speaks volumes. If he bought into the rationale, was that not an indication the players were of one mindset?
Naturally, the union needs to bear the brunt of blame if it did indeed hire the wrong man. But if they recognized that, isn’t it best they ended the relationship before things got worse?
And there is one more thing we learned: The players displayed strong solidarity in keeping things quiet. That may be good news for their next executive director…and a warning sign for the NHL.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays.
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