One would be forgiven for trying to avoid the latest behind-the-scenes circus to befall the league and its players association. Amid the ongoing and incredulous tug of ego's taking place at the now infamous Phoenix courthouse, Paul Kelly, Executive Director of the NHLPA was fired after a ten hour marathon of meetings in Chicago on Sunday.
Kelly, who was thought to support expansion or relocation back into the Canadian market, was reportedly relieved of his duties following an expensive, ramshackle and unconstitutional investigation fronted by interim ombudsman Buzz Hargrove.
The investigation cited internal disputes surrounding Kelly's direction, a lack of face time with the members of the union and an deep rooted belief that Kelly was becoming too close to the NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy Bill Daly.
Resulting in a vote of no confidence from the 30 players who make up the NHLPA's executive board, Kelly's position within the union was terminated after just 22 months in office and Ian Penny, former second in command as General Counsel, was installed as the interim executive director.
The move has left many to speculate the real reasons surrounding Kelly's dismissal, the dubious role of former Canadian Auto Workers trade union president Buzz Hargrove and the potential goals of the NHLPA headed into the next round of CBA labor negotiations which is due to begin at the close of the 2010-2011 season.
With Hargrove's investigation providing scant grounds for dismissal it seems all manner of former employees, not to mention current members of the union have been emerging from the woodwork to discredit Kelly in what is looking increasingly like a power struggle in the office and short sightedness from the constituent members.
One of the major players, the aforementioned Ian Penny, is apparently one of those whose feathers were ruffled by Kelly. While both he and mercifully Buzz Hargrove have ruled themselves out for the long term position, there appears some internal mechanism had sought to remove Kelly, even if a name is yet to come to the fore.
For his part, Kelly had cemented himself as a trustworthy mediator between the NHLPA and the league office and had fought tirelessly for the players albeit with a realization of the needs of the game, its fans and the current economic climate. Regardless of dire financial times and a CBA tuned to boom as opposed to bust, the players union has witnessed record revenues under his leadership.
Cut down without the scandal that bookended the reigns of Alan Eagleson and Ted Saskin, Kelly's departure has done little to improve the reputation of the NHLPA that has now witnessed three executive directors since 2005 with a fourth soon to follow.
With Toronto Star columnist Damian Cox estimating the cost of the abortive process between $5-6 million dollars of player dues, the witch hunt has undone nearly all the goodwill Kelly had sought to salvage from the wreckage of Saskin's crooked direction and in the cold light of day, the constituents appear to have changed tack.
With Kelly viewed as a progressive figurehead within the NHLPA, an increasing number of players have begun lobbying his closest ally, Director of Player Affairs Glenn Healy, to stay aboard amid the turmoil and the resignation of another of Kelly's supporters Pat Flatley.
Perhaps representing those not privy to the presentations of Hargrove, the silent players lining up behind Healy suggest the decision of the NHLPA's executive board is not as universal as Kelly's detractors would have us believe, rather; indicative of the mentalities representing the greater majority of its members and the potential separatism that could emerge in light of the decision.
Meanwhile the sheer presence of union hardliner Buzz Hargrove, a man many blame for the increased labor costs in the Canadian automotive industry that led to countless bankruptcies, smacks of old school rebellion. Unsatisfied that the NHLPA Executive Director, a man (or woman) who has to deal with the league office on a day by day basis, has become too close to Betmann and Daly, indicates potentially dark and isolationist days lie ahead.
If the new direction of the NHLPA seeks stewardship under an Bob Goodenow shaped figure at a time of economic rollback, one can only fear another potentially destructive lockout may loom. If the goal in 2011 is simply highest dollar for the top 5% of earners within the union, not only will the fans be burnt, or the owners; but the majority of players and Kelly's exit seems to characterize a concerning trend only partly assuaged by the still uncertain presence of Glenn Healy.
With the Hargrove smokescreen apparently blinding an Executive Board now staring down the barrel of labor disputes, one has to question the motivations of the 30 players who deemed Kelly's position untenable and the actual influence they possess. Fronted in the media throng by the likes of Andrew Ference and Chris Chelios, there is a feeling that the players have been the ventriloquists dummy to the savvier, suit driven side of the NHLPA with designs on Kelly's $1.5 million a year contract and the power the position wields.
If the decision to fire Kelly is later revealed to be a Buzz Hargrove fronted blindside, the role of the NHLPA and the dynamics of its executive body will surely be undermined at a crucial nexus in the current CBA.
However the issue resolves, the farcical firing of Paul Kelly has once more dragged the name of the NHL and the NHLPA through the mud of an already inglorious summer. While fans look forward to the start of a new season, the volatile bodies that form the structure of the NHL seem determined to strip away every ounce of credibility the league possesses. Whoever supersedes Kelly will not only find themselves constantly under the sword in the Eagleson-dictatorship-turned-spastic-democracy of the NHLPA, but also treading a thin line between the minority old school power brokers and the greater good of the game. Basically it will boil down to compromise without compromise and a hard earned paycheck.
Originally written for The Maple Leafs Hot Stove