Three different articles over the past few days have come up with three different answers to the question above.

Damien Cox expands on the popular notion that this was a palace coup in his column, pointing the finger at a group including Ian Penny, Eric Lindros, Buzz Hargrove and identifying Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference as the spokesman who “led the charge” against Kelly in the fateful August 30th meeting that concluded with Kelly’s termination.

Meanwhile, in the Sports Business Journal, Liz Mullen and Tripp Mickle present the other side of the equation, featuring the allegations of sources inside the union – most notably Hargrove – and saying that trust issues led to Kelly’s ouster.

Finally, The Hockey News’s Adam Proteau manages to direct the blame in a completely different direction – at the National Hockey League. Let’s look at Proteau’s piece first, since it’s so bizarre that had I not provided a link to it I might be accused of fabricating a strawman.

Proteau ‘s argument seems to originate with the idea that Paul Kelly was dismissed because he wasn’t combative enough with the NHL, an idea that everyone – including the man who Cox claims led the charge against Kelly – denies:

“That was not the reason we fired Paul. Why would we not want a proactive relationship with the league? This idea that we want a more militant leader or hard-liner in charge is crazy. Do we want our leader to be soft? No. But of course we want to have a line of communication with the league, and we realize what another work stoppage could do. That’s the last thing we want.”

(bolding, italics mine)

Still, misguided notion firmly in hand, Proteau launches into a rant against the league and it’s ownership, attacking the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs for raising ticket prices, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs for unspecified reasons and accusing the NHL of “grieving all kinds of monetary issues behind the scenes, pushing players, agents and union leaders into a corner.”

Of course, the idea that the NHL might seek it’s own best interest on monetary fronts is hardly surprising, but neither is it especially incriminating. Proteau quotes unnamed player agents – yes, the same agents whose entire profession’s purpose is transferring every possible dime from the hands of the owners to the players – as being upset that the league would act in its own financial interest while dealing with the NHLPA.

And that’s Proteau’s column in a nutshell: the men whose entire job is dedicated to getting money out of the league tell him that the league pushed players too hard, and as a result the players now want a leader “with a Billy Idol snarl and a fuse short enough to make Sam Kinison look like the Dalai Lama.” Based on this evidence, Proteau places the blame squarely on the NHL.

On to more sensible columns.

The Sports Business Journal article is based on information gleaned from Buzz Hargrove and an unnamed union source (although a cynic might suggest that this unnamed source could easily be Hargrove sharing things he didn’t want his name attached to); information that puts Paul Kelly in a decidedly unfavourable light. It lists the following items presented against Kelly:

  • Kelly didn’t contest the suspensions to Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Lidstrom after they skipped the league’s annual All-Star Game, because he had previously agreed with Gary Bettman that players skipping the event should be suspended.
  • Sara Zlabis, the second-longest serving NHLPA employee, provided a letter to NHLPA ombudsman Eric Lindros which was highly critical of the process Kelly used to review NHLPA employees. She was fired a few months later – something that Hargrove strongly hints was retribution from Kelly.
  • Hargrove claims that Kelly “did not want to listen to what anyone else on staff said”.
  • A report by human resources consultant Anne Marie Turnbull was critical of Kelly’s management style; for the report, Turnbull and a group of player representatives had interviewed 25 employees of the NHLPA. An unnamed source claims that in the interviews, employees were unfavourable of Kelly’s ability as executive director. When the player representatives presented their findings, they highlighted that employees were pleased with Kelly’s communication skills and open-door policy, but were concerned about his ability to generate revenue or negotiate a new CBA.
  • When confronted at the Chicago meeting, Kelly singled out Ian Penny, Buzz Hargrove and some of the player representatives as engaging in a coup against him.
  • Lastly, the most critical charge was that Kelly had circumvented the rules to obtain the minutes from a closed door meeting, and that this had destroyed the trust the players had in him.

Reading through that list of charges, I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. The All-Star game, while almost completely irrelevant to people like me, has its place. Last year, it reportedly earned 12-million dollars for the league in direct sponsorship and gate revenue, and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly lauded its usefulness:

“Obviously all our business partners come to this event. It’s an opportunity to do a lot of business, to have a lot of meetings, and to resolve a lot of issues. It has been a good weekend, a very productive weekend.”

To remain useful, the All-Star game needs player buy-in, and it seems to me that Kelly was looking at the big picture when he agreed with Bettman that non-participants should face some sort of penalty. When Datsyuk and Lidstrom were eventually suspended, it wouldn’t only have been an about-face, but it would have been the wrong course of action to appeal those suspensions.

Aside from that one charge, much of the rest seems related to internal office politics. Of the twenty-five employees interviewed, I wonder how many were in a position to evaluate Kelly on his ability to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement or generate revenue. In the latter instance, I imagine one employee in a position to know would be Kevin Lovitt, the NHLPA’s director of corporate sponsorship. Given that Lovitt was axed within days of Kelly’s departure, it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t on the same page as his fired boss. Or perhaps accounting consultant Bob Lindquist might have had knowledge on both issues; then again, he too left the player’s association after Kelly was fired.

The final charge was looking at the minutes of that confidential meeting – the one where Penny was awarded a five-year contract extension – and on that particular count Damien Cox has some interesting background on that:

Kelly, as the chairman of the executive committee, was constitutionally bound to be in the meeting during which Penny’s new contract was discussed, but was excluded.

After being asked about the issue by several players, Kelly apparently got a copy of the minutes. He then told the executive committee what he had done when last week’s meetings in Chicago began and explained that he was trying to protect the players against abuses of their own constitution. His admission was later used against him.

“It was like he jaywalked to uncover a crime, and got sent to prison for jaywalking,” said one player.

Cox goes on to quote other players who are less than impressed with the way this business was conducted, and identifies Chris Chelios as one who wanted to avoid voting on the issue in the wee hours of the morning.

Admittedly, the picture we have is still incomplete. That said, the initial consensus – that this was a place coup, orchestrated by a small group – still rings true to me. The repeated attempts by people like Penny and Hargrove to deflect attention to Kelly’s alleged impropriety (with no mention of the extension which Penny seems to have improperly received) supports that notion, as does the almost immediate purge of Kelly loyalists following his termination.

Update: I missed this excellent Allan Maki article this morning, where Andrew Ference responds at some length to Cox’s column.