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Trust issue did in Kelly at NHLPA

In the end, it was Paul Kelly against the world.

Kelly’s downfall as executive director of the NHL Players’ Association began long before last week’s union meeting in Chicago. Ultimately, the players decided to fire Kelly because of what they saw as ineffective leadership, failure to develop new business opportunities and an inability to work together with other members of the NHLPA staff. But his fate was sealed by a breakdown in trust, illustrated by a presentation to player representatives that described an effort by Kelly to circumvent union rules.

Kelly’s departure leaves the union without a leader a year before it is expected to begin collective-bargaining negotiations with the NHL. It also closes another tumultuous chapter for a union that has been beset by a series of scandals over the last two decades, from Alan Eagleson’s embezzling in the 1990s to Ted Saskin’s surreptitious surveillance of players’ e-mails.

Kelly declined an interview request but denied any wrongdoing and said in a statement, “I always acted in the best interests of the players, including taking affirmative actions required of me based on my obligations to the players and NHLPA.”

Paul Kelly says he acted in the best
interests of players.

The problems with Kelly first surfaced as long as a year ago at a Chicago meeting of player representatives when then-NHLPA ombudsman Eric Lindros presented a report on issues that employees had with Kelly.

One of those issues came from the then-NHLPA director of human resources, Sara Zlabis, who was the union’s second-longest-serving employee. Lindros read a letter from Zlabis that was critical of Kelly’s review process for NHLPA employees. A few months later, she was fired.

“I don’t think it was a coincidence that she was fired within the next few months,” said Buzz Hargrove, who replaced Lindros as ombudsman earlier this year.

The episode was one of several that raised a red flag for players. Another occurred during the NHL all-star break when the NHL suspended all-star Detroit Red Wings NicklasLidstrom and PavelDatsyuk for a regular-season game because they failed to attend the all-star festivities. Kelly had agreed with Commissioner Gary Bettman the previous summer that players who skipped the All-Star Game could be subjected to suspension, player-side sources said. Other union employees and players felt that the Lidstrom and Datsyuk suspensions should have been contested and questioned the legitimacy of Kelly’s agreement.

Hargrove said that beginning in February several NHLPA staff members came to him with complaints about Kelly. Although Hargrove would not be specific about the complaints, he said the problem was that Kelly did not want to listen to what anyone else on staff said.

That kind of management style runs contrary to the NHLPA’s constitution, which was rewritten after Kelly was hired to give players more power over the union. Indeed, the constitution is structured so that players, not the executive director, can fire the ombudsman, the general counsel and the advisory committee. It generally gives the NHLPA chief less power than the executive directors who run the NFLPA, MLBPA and National Basketball Players Association.

The complaints brought to Hargrove also underscored a split among union employees regarding Kelly. Players addressed the divide in June during the NHLPA player meetings in Las Vegas. NHLPA player representatives decided to create a committee to investigate the dispute. Matt Stajan and Mike Komisarek of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brad Boyes of the St. Louis Blues and Andrew Ference of the Boston Bruins volunteered to lead the investigation.

In July, the four players along with human resources consultant Anne Marie Turnbull interviewed 25 members of the NHLPA staff. The players compiled firsthand accounts from staff regarding Kelly’s leadership of the union.

“They weren’t favorable to him whatsoever, from his ability as a leader of the NHLPA to his ability to create a business plan and negotiate with Gary Bettman,” said a source familiar with the players’ report.

The four players shared the results of the investigation with Kelly on Aug. 26, days before a scheduled meeting of player representatives in Chicago. The following day, TSN reported that Kelly was under fire and could be ousted.

A total of 27 player representatives gathered Aug. 30 in Chicago to hear a report on their colleagues’ investigation. The meeting began with NHL legend and former Red Wing Ted Lindsay defending Kelly. The appearance of the NHL great struck most players as odd because Lindsay doesn’t have an official role with the union and was unfamiliar with the questions surrounding Kelly’s leadership.

Kelly followed Lindsay and defended his work as executive director. He accused those allied against him of being participants in a coup and went so far as to single out NHLPA general counsel Ian Penny, Hargrove, members of the advisory board and divisional player representatives, the six former players who support player representatives at each team and help facilitate communication between the NHLPA office and the membership.

“At the end of the day, you weren’t left with anyone else,” a source said. “He basically went through the entire organization and named them as part of the coup.”

Afterward, Kelly left the room and the four players who conducted the investigation presented their findings. They noted the positive traits employees admired in Kelly such as his strong communication skills and his open-door policy. But the players also raised employee questions about Kelly’s ability to generate new revenue and negotiate a new CBA. The four players ended their presentation by recommending Kelly’s dismissal.

Hargrove followed with a presentation of his own. The presentation culminated, a source said, with Hargrove laying on a table a series of e-mails between Kelly and an NHLPA employee in which Kelly asked the employee to provide him with sealed and confidential transcripts of minutes from the June players meeting in Las Vegas. The minutes Kelly sought concerned a meeting of the NHLPA advisory board in which the four-member panel that would investigate the complaints against Kelly was appointed.

A source said that after the employee expressed concern to Kelly about retrieving the sealed transcripts, the employee notified Hargrove of Kelly’s request. According to Hargrove’s presentation, the source said, Kelly contacted the court stenographer who took notes on the meeting, and requested and secured the sealed transcripts, thereby circumventing NHLPA rules.

The episode recalled former NHLPA Executive Director Ted Saskin’s efforts to monitor players’ e-mails and was grounds for immediate dismissal.

“The guys were in shock,” a source said. “[The union] just went through the Saskin stuff with the e-mails.”

The players brought Kelly back into the room and asked him to address Hargrove’s evidence. He said that he accessed the sealed transcripts in order to protect the players in case they were being misled, according to a source.

Kelly was asked to leave the room shortly after 3 a.m. and the players took a vote. Of the 27 player representatives present, 22 voted to fire Kelly.

In a statement, Kelly said, “My personal ethics and reputation are beyond reproach. All of these stories, whether anonymous or by those seeking to protect their individual interest, intend to defame my reputation and good name. They not only harm me, but do harm to the reputation of the over 700 hockey players who make our sport the best in the world.”

In the days after the vote, Lindros, Penny and others were accused of leading a coup against Kelly. But sources say they had nothing to do with what happened. It came down to trust.

“If you lose trust, it’s gone,” a source said. “How can you be a leader of a union and not have trust? Even if Saskin had never happened, this would have been an incredibly bad thing.”

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