What lessons should NHL Players' Association learn from Paul Kelly's dismissal?

August, 31, 2009

Shawn Horcoff's phone was filled with voice mail and text messages from his Edmonton Oilers teammates Monday.

They wanted to know what the heck was going on. Great question.

Horcoff, the Oilers' player representative, was one of the 30 executive board members who gave executive director Paul Kelly his walking papers in the middle of the night Sunday. Despite all the rumors and rumblings we had been hearing the past few weeks regarding Kelly's standing, it was still a stunning result.

"Until we're able to inform all the players on exactly what happened, we're really not going to be too specific," Horcoff, hopping on a plane, told ESPN.com. "There's some information and some news that came our way that forced the hands of the executive board to go in a different direction."

Something they heard Sunday night prompted them to act because, from the conversations I had with some of those player reps before Sunday, they didn't go into that meeting thinking they were going to fire Kelly.

"I changed my mind after what I heard," one player rep who requested anonymity told us Monday.

But whether it was the report from interim NHLPA ombudsman Buzz Hargrove or the separate findings from player reps Matt Stajan, Mike Komisarek, Brad Boyes and Andrew Ference (who, along with an HR consultant, interviewed union office staff), the 30 reps heard enough to fire Kelly. It's as stunning as it sounds. For my money, Kelly was someone I grew to respect in the past 21 months and his firing is big loss for the union. He was a big-picture guy with the conciliatory skills to make things happen with the league.

But let's forget that part for now. Whether the evidence suggests it was a wise decision to can Kelly, I think the bigger issue here is whether the board should have acted so quickly on such a gigantic decision. Why not take the information gathered from Sunday's meeting and discuss it with the rest of the players in your dressing room. Isn't that the job of a player rep? Isn't that democracy? Isn't that why a new constitution was written for the NHLPA just two years ago?

"To me, what's troubling is that a decision with such huge ramifications took place in two days with such a small group," said one veteran player agent, requesting anonymity. "How can that small group make such a big decision? That's the concern, regardless of whether you're an advocate of Kelly or not."

Said another agent: "I'm dumbfounded by the immediacy of this decision. You'd think this should be deliberated for more than 10 hours. I would have thought something as significant as this would have involved more discussion among more players. I just think the general union populace should have had more of a say in this."

One very high-profile player, we can tell you, was livid Monday that he wasn't apprised of any of this before it was too late.

Hargrove, who told ESPN.com on Monday that he has no interest in replacing Kelly and told the executive board as much, said the player reps were told they could wait until they saw their teammates before making a final decision.

"That was one of the options that the board members had," Hargrove said. "They were very familiar with that option. But given the circumstances, given the findings that were presented to them, given the debate, they took a decision. It's a decision they will feel very comfortable justifying with their fellow players once they see them in training camp."

For the record, according to the NHLPA's new constitution, the player reps did nothing wrong. They have the power to hire and fire executive directors without the consent of the entire membership. But morally, given the magnitude of this action, one wonders how this could be done without further discussion.

In the end, however, maybe it's a little rich for the rank-and-file players to complain. Fact is, most of the time, they care little about the ongoings of the NHLPA and many don't even bother attending meetings (such as the players who went to the NHL awards event in Las Vegas in June but didn't bother sticking around for the players meetings).

"Any player who was in attendance at the Vegas meetings would have known Paul Kelly's leadership was being reviewed," said one NHLPA staff source.

But perhaps the shock firing of their leader will be a valuable wake-up call for all those apathetic players.

"I hope there will be more of an awareness from the rest of the membership because of this," one player agent said. "That's the lesson to be learned."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer




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