Puck Daddy - NHL

Paul Kelly, whose tenure as executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association ended in controversy in Summer 2009, praised the hiring of Donald Fehr by the NHLPA and said he believes the NHL will be back on ESPN in some capacity in the next television contract.

Kelly, now the executive director of College Hockey, Inc., said that Fehr's hiring and changes to the PA's Constitution takes the association from a "totally unworkable situation" to stability. Said Kelly: "It's a challenge. Don's going to have his hands full, but he's a very smart and very capable guy. When you combine the new structure with a talented guy, you're in for a period of relative calm"

On the NHL and ESPN, he said: "I would be surprised if the NHL doesn't strike some kind of arrangement with ESPN."

Listen to the full interview here:

Former NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly on Donald Fehr, ESPN from Greg Wyshynski on Vimeo.

When Kelly was leading the NHLPA, he was also a leading voice on the importance of the NHL getting back on ESPN in some form; whether it was striking an deal with the network when the rights were up for grabs or encouraging VERSUS to enter into a content sharing agreement akin to the NBA being on both ESPN and TNT.

Kelly's feelings on ESPN and the NHL today:

"Eh, sometimes you make comments and then years later you look back and you realize that it wasn't the smartest thing to say.

"There was a frustration then, and it still exists now although it's lesser than it was a couple of years back, that our sport didn't get enough attention on television in the United States. It was very frustrating for those of us who traveled frequently around to go to hotels and not get an NHL game on any of the television networks.

"I will say that VERSUS has done a much better job as time has gone by. They have far more games on TV. Their production values are much, much better. The partnership with NBC has worked well.

"I don't know what's going on in terms of the discussions. But frankly, if I was about to make a prediction, I would say that ESPN will get involved in the mix."

"I think the NHL will come up with some type of agreement where they continue the partnership with Comcast, VERSUS and NBC, and also slice a piece of the pie off and at least give ESPN an opportunity [to show] they're committed to the sport, that they're willing to put it on the main network, that they're willing to give it quality time across their broadcast channels. ...

Kelly continued:

"They're all going to want the same thing: They're all going to want to broadcast the Winter Classic and they're all going to want to broadcast the Stanley Cup Finals. That's the tension.

"That obviously can't be. You do have to give some seniority to your loyal partners who have been with you throughout. I don't think ESPN can walk in and expect that it's suddenly going to the Winter Classic or the final game of the Stanley Cups. But I think they'd like to get some playoff coverage, and I think there's room for them in the schedule to do that. I'd be surprised if the NHL doesn't strike some kind of arrangement with ESPN."

Paul Kelly said he has a personal relationship with Fehr, but hadn't spoken to him since his approval as NHLPA chief.

On the hiring of Donald Fehr as NHLPA executive director, Kelly said:

"I think the more important news is the fact that they've adopted a new Constitution. They took the Constitution that was in place the last few years that has frankly proven to be just a debacle -- it was a reaction to what occurred in the aftermath of the lockout with Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin. They put in place a structure which was intended to make someone totally accountable. But it was totally an unworkable situation. That's now been changed. ...

"What's incumbent upon Don in the coming months is, number one, he has to put in place a staff. He's got some holes in his staff there. Some key people have left and he had to fill some voids in the player area and the legal area and in the forensic accounting area.

"But most importantly: Don has to learn the issues. I don't know how much he knows about the sport; I don't think he's ever played it or coached it. He needs to understand what the challenges are in the sport, and what some of the economics are. 

"And finally - and this is the part I know he grasps - he's got to get he guys  more involved, and more invigorated. They players have to pay more attention. It's hard, partially because of the history of the NHLPA, players have grown disillusioned with having to involve themselves in union business. Plus, many of these guys are very young, and are more interested with staying healthy and staying on roster and not getting bogged down in union business. But we're at a point in time when we're a couple of years away from the end of the current CBA that the players have to pay attention. Don's job is to engage them. ...

"It's a challenge. Don's going to have his hands full, but he's a very smart and very capable guy. When you combine the new structure with a talented guy, you're in for a period of relative calm. That isn't not say there aren't really difficult issues facing the sport. It's going to be tough to come to some consensus here that's acceptable for both sides."

The takeaways on both of these issues for us: That Kelly believes this is, in some ways, a different NHLPA than the one he ran, giving the executive director more power to make things happen and with less tangled bureaucracy.

On the ESPN front, Kelly's prediction is a bold one. The speculation is that ESPN would seek the NHL rights as a way to slow the momentum of the burgeoning cable sports empire for NBC and Comcast. Sharing the NHL between the two would then seem an odd decision, save for the fact that there are always going to be prominent voices within the NHL and the NHLPA arguing that it's essential, at any cost, to get back on ESPN.

Check out the full interview ... great stuff with Kelly. The Puck Daddy Radio archives are here.

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