Paul Kelly, a Boston lawyer who was hired as the NHL Players' Association Executive Director in October, is on a 30-team tour to meet with his players and discuss what issues are most pressing.
Part of Kelly's job is repairing a fractured group still stinging from a yearlong lockout that ended with Bob Goodenow's departure and the eventual dismissal of Goodenow's successor, Ted Saskin, amid allegations he ordered the spying on player emails, one reportedly being the Wild's Mark Parrish.
During a wide-ranging interview with the Star Tribune on Nov. 30, Kelly's strongest statements were on his goal to get the NHL back on ESPN.
At the recent Board of Governors meeting, Kelly told NHL owners and executives, "If I have to take you kicking and screaming with me to Connecticut [where ESPN is based], I will do so."
After the 2004-05 lockout, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman turned to the new Comcast-owned cable network, Versus, when ESPN wanted a revenue-sharing contract. Versus offered guaranteed money and now owns cable exclusivity through 2011.
Kelly said it's critical to grow NHL revenues, and one way to do that is "to do a better job with television in the United States."
Q: How do you do that?
Kelly: We need something in addition to Versus. They do an excellent job of the telecasts that they produce, but, and I hear the numbers that they're now available in 73 million homes, the reality is most people -- the casual sports fan -- don't know they exist, can't find it on the dial. They don't promote, they don't advertise, they don't bring to the table what an ESPN or a Fox Sports on a national level could bring."
Q: So how do you remedy this considering the league has locked itself to Versus?
Kelly: This sport has got to get back on ESPN. The marketing and sponsorship activities will flow from a good, solid national TV contract, which this sport has lacked now for a number of years.
Q: Have you told Bettman this?
Kelly: At some length [laughing]. He has wanted to tell me the whole history of negotiations, and I've been patient to listen. I understand a few years ago ESPN drove a hard bargain. But times have changed. Not only do we need an ESPN, I think ESPN needs us. I mean, I've seen some of their programming. They have holes in their schedule that would be ideally suited for the quality sport that we provide.
Q: You're a lawyer. Can the exclusivity provisions be challenged or re-negotiated?
Kelly: In my view, all of that stuff can be overcome. It's all a question of discussions and negotiations. I've told Gary, 'Look, we are not only going to be a willing partner, I am going to be pushing the league in the direction of a national TV contract.' This is a major issue. My players want more exposure. We need to build more stars. You can take the three biggest stars off the Boston Bruins and walk them down the center of the busiest street in Boston and 99 percent of the public wouldn't recognize them. And something's wrong with that. The American public, other than Sidney Crosby, maybe with one or two other exceptions, don't identify with the stars of our sport. If you want to build a new fan base of younger kids, you've got to build star players. You've got to develop the equivalent of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett in hockey. Hockey organizations try to build 'team,' not individual play, so there's this built-in hostility to developing stars. But we're in the world of professional sports. We're in the entertainment business. The Gretzky-Lemieux era that we had, we've got to have it again and we've got to have more than Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
Q: Do you think Versus would waive its exclusivity clause?
Kelly: If I'm the owner of Versus and some of the games are on my network and some of the games are on ESPN and ESPN says, 'Wednesday night's game will be on Versus,' and I'm getting the advertisement from a major sports network like that, that helps me immensely. So I don't know if I'm Versus that I would be hostile to this.
On another topic, the NHLPA has the right to re-open the collective bargaining agreement after the 2008-09 season. Kelly says there are aspects of the current CBA that "players disfavor," such as escrow and that there are things with the salary cap that could be "tinkered with."
Kelly admits he told owners, "My whole professional life is as a trial lawyer and an advocate and a fighter and if they want to fight, I'm going to be a pretty tough adversary.
"That said, the last thing this sport needs, whether it's next year or three or four years, is another labor interruption. The fans I think will be disgusted and turn away from this sport if the businessmen on my side of the fence and on the management side can't work though these kind of issues."