For hockey fans, August is the most agonizingly boring month of the calendar year. NHL media outlets struggle to scrape together content for daily publication, to the extent that you get extensive coverage of a press conference in which players and executives gush about how excited they are for an event that was announced months ago, people start shaking with excitement whenever details about relatively meaningless preseason games are announced, and something like this headline happens: “Free Agent [Player X] Still Undecided About Future.” Thanks for the critical update, NHL.com! (Yes yes, I know, Player X = Teemu Selanne, and Team Teemu needs to be informed whenever he puts one foot in front of the other, because he is our Guiding Light from heaven above, #TeemuForever, amen. But come on.)
Other articles I’ve read recently talk about events that occurred many eons ago, but the reporters figured, hey, August is where all hockey news goes to die, so it’s as good a time as any to revisit every historical NHL event that ever occurred. (Happy 25th anniversary of the Gretzky trade, everyone!) Keeping up with the times, I decided to contribute to this trend and dig up a notable NHL-related event and the rather hush-hush details surrounding it: The 2009 ousting of NHLPA boss Paul Kelly.
I stumbled upon the story back in January, while interviewing a woman named Susan Foster—someone who is, frankly, criminally under-recognized in the hockey world (at least among fans). Ms. Foster wrote a widely influential book with Leafs’ legend Carl Brewer—The Power of Two—in which she and Brewer exposed the corruption of the NHLPA’s first executive director, Alan Eagleson. Long before the book’s publication in 2006, back when he was serving as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, Paul Kelly became friendly with Foster. The two kept in touch throughout Kelly’s brief turn as the PA’s director, which lasted from October 24, 2007 to August 31, 2009.
What exactly happened that night, you ask? Find out below, courtesy of the estimable Susan Foster. PS: Kelly himself gave this exposition his blessing. Take that for what it’s worth.
Q: How was Paul Kelly fired?
It was a set-up — a power play or “palace coup” orchestrated by a couple of inside managers at the NHLPA (holdovers from the Bob Goodenow era), and a few newly appointed outside Board members. This array of individuals had become increasingly uncooperative with Paul in an effort to assert their own agenda. They made it extremely difficult for him to pursue various initiatives and make many of the positive changes and improvements he wanted to make for all the players.
A few PA members confidentially voiced concerns to Paul about a meeting of the Executive Board that was held in Las Vegas from which he was excluded, and during which issues were discussed that affected all players, Paul did the right thing. The players who voiced these concerns believed that the PA Constitution had been violated. Paul knew he had a legal obligation to explore these concerns and attempt to learn what had transpired during this session, and indeed a duty as Executive Director to act to protect the interests of all members of the PA.
When the minutes of the meeting were sent to Paul – and only after he first consulted with legal counsel — Paul reviewed the minutes. Thereafter, he was open and honest and disclosed to the players that he had reviewed the minutes of the meeting, the reasons he had done so, and what he had learned: that the PA’s constitution had indeed been violated during this meeting.
Unfortunately, this issue was twisted and manipulated against Paul by some of these same insiders and outside Board members that had participated in this meeting, and they used Paul’s honesty and integrity against him. These individuals relentlessly lobbied a small handful of players over many hours during an evening player meeting in Chicago and ultimately convinced them to take the regrettable step of terminating Paul’s employment, at 4:30 am in the morning. At all times, however, Paul Kelly did exactly the right thing and upheld his duty to the membership.
Q: Why didn’t Kelly fight it?
Without question, Paul had a strong legal case for wrongful dismissal. However, it was his choice not to pursue this avenue. He is a peacemaker not a war-monger by nature and he has a huge heart and concern for others. He’s the type of person who looks forward, not backwards.
He did not want to drag his family through a prolonged lawsuit. His family had already paid a huge price by his taking on this position with the PA. He was living in Toronto and constantly on the road while his wife and family lived in Boston.
Furthermore, amazingly, in spite of his treatment by a few of the players, he said that he didn’t want to cause harm to the player members of the NHLPA or the game itself.
Q: What has gone wrong since Kelly was ousted?
Paul Kelly’s ousting was the greatest travesty that’s ever happened to the players. He was the only Executive Director who was concerned exclusively with looking after the best interests of the players and their families.
Paul was not in this role to make a name for himself. He’s an honorable, good man and a very diplomatic person, and it was a great loss for the players.
The circumstances of Donald Fehr’s appointment as Paul’s successor were very suspicious. He was on the phone with the group in Chicago within hours of Paul’s termination, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would eventually become as the next Executive Director.
I am absolutely sure that Paul Kelly would have put the CBA negotiations to bed months ago, but Fehr kept digging in his heels. He made everyone think the two sides were close to a deal, and yet he was the one putting up roadblocks that hindered a deal from being struck.
In one of the important meetings, he showed up 90 minutes late and put three ideas on the table, but he hadn’t calculated any of the numbers on what he was offering so it was basically a complete waste of time for everybody.
Fascinating inside look, if anything. But speaking to Paul Kelly myself a few days ago (for a totally separate interview) solidified this image of him in my mind. He not only refused to criticize anyone involved in the 2012-13 negotiations, but he went out of his way to praise everyone involved—though he did add that he would have begun discussions months beforehand and hopefully avoided a lockout altogether. And isn’t that what we’d all love to hear?
If only. Maybe in an alternate universe.