Sidney Crosby's first words on the firing of Paul Kelly as executive director of the NHLPA were a talking point throughout the league and websites everywhere.
Traditionally, Crosby has steered clear of National Hockey League Players' Association business and not even attended meetings. But yesterday he issued a statement insisting he, like others in the association, want to know precisely why Kelly was fired last month after less than two years in office.
"I would just say that I agree with Pat's comments and that I definitely want to know how things happened," Crosby said, speaking about his agent, Pat Brisson. "I am part of the union like every other player and I think we all deserve a good explanation."
Late Thursday, Brisson and J.P. Barry of CAA Hockey dispatched a release saying that after conversations with their clients and other players, "some of the things we have learned about the [firing]process are very troubling to us." Less than 12 hours later, Crosby raised eyebrows and website traffic by lending his voice to the Kelly debate.
Kelly was dismissed on Aug. 31 in Chicago by the PA's 30-member executive board. The vote, conducted by secret ballot, was 22-5 in favour of firing and resulted in general counsel Ian Penny being appointed interim executive director.
While the vote was in accordance with the association's constitution, players around the league were bothered by the fact they had no input in such a monumental decision. That Crosby would express his concern was viewed as a positive development even by those who attended the Chicago meeting and heard the evidence against Kelly.
"I'm a firm believer in the more guys that educate themselves and speak up on things and lead to constructive criticism, the stronger our union is going to be," said Robyn Regehr, player representative for the Calgary Flames. "As for where it goes, I have no idea, but I really like the way that some players are starting to speak up, a guy like Sidney."
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Matt Stajan was adamant the executive board acted properly since it was empowered to act on the players' behalf.
"If we could have had all 700 guys there, that would have been great," Stajan said. "But it's not going to happen. This was something that had to be done. If we waited and brought this back [to the teams]with the proof in the pudding, we're just delaying it another two months until we can all meet up again on a conference call.
"We felt the longer we had to wait, the worse it was going to be for our union."
Kelly was hired in 2007 to bring stability to the PA after its former executive director, Ted Saskin, was fired for allegedly accessing the players' private e-mail accounts for information. Kelly was seen as the right man to lead the players into negotiations for a new labour agreement.
Although he argued for the players and their participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, a matter the league has not agreed to, there were complaints he was too close to the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman.
What also contributed to Kelly's downfall was his reading of a confidential transcript from a PA meeting held in Las Vegas. Sources have said Kelly acknowledged reading the transcript because he was afraid the players had violated their constitution by not having him present when awarding a five-year contract to Penny.
Others have indicated Kelly didn't need to see the transcript since he had notified the players of their mistake, which led to a revote on Penny's contract during the same Las Vegas session. That incident, combined with a review of the NHLPA office, sealed Kelly's fate.
"When you have a leader and you do an office review and there is proof that the office is not functioning well, that's on the leader," said Stajan, who along with teammate Mike Komisarek, Boston Bruin Andrew Ference and Brad Boyes of the St. Louis Blues interviewed PA staff members. "If any big business has troubles and there are other issues that have come up, there will be a change in the leadership role. That's basically what happened."
Changes to the PA's constitution are expected since Kelly had to answer to an ombudsman, an advisory board, an executive board and was too handcuffed to act quickly. Regehr said the constitution would be given high priority in the next few meetings.
"I think we've gone from one extreme to the other," Regehr explained. "The executive committee, which I believe was six members, guys felt they were just an extension of the executive director. They were being influenced that way. … Now we've swung to the complete opposite, with all these different positions. I know that it's an important issue that we have to deal. I think the new executive director, whoever that is, has to be aware of what he's coming into."
Stajan also addressed speculation there are players, particularly Chris Chelios, trying to get Kelly reinstated somehow. Chelios denied that: "To clear the air, I am leading no such charge. The board made a decision in Chicago and there is no turning back."
With reports from Tim Wharnsby, Eric Duhatschek