Emotions Run High After Kelly's Departure
With Coaches Upset, Many Issues Lurked Below the Surface
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
The reactions ranged from shock and outrage, to disappointment and resignation, and everything in between. Or everything all at once.
"All of the above," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson.
Universally, coaches around the country reacted negatively to Tuesday's news that Paul Kelly had resigned — forced to resign — as executive director of College Hockey Inc. To the coaches, Kelly, the former head of the NHL Players Association, was the perfect person to help resolve many issues important to coaches, and college hockey in general.
"Paul Kelly is the best thing that happened to college hockey in 25 years," Jackson said, echoing the sentiments of every coach.
The decision to push Kelly out was made by the Hockey Commissioners Association, the organization in charge with establishing College Hockey Inc. two years ago, and the one that Kelly ultimately reported to. But the coaches were working with him, too, a good idea to be sure, but where the seeds of discontent were sewn.
"There were a lot of very positive things that Paul was developing for us, as a result, you can imagine how disappointed we all are to hear the news," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said.
"He opened lines of communication. We made great first steps with all of these entities — the NHL, the NHLPA, the NCAA, USA Hockey. There was so many positive steps in those regards. That dialogue shed light on a number of issues. ... Just to sit down with them is huge."
Said Jackson, "You couldn't have asked for a better representative. ... He was making major gains. All of the things that he was doing, I think it's all down the drain now."
The impression you get is that these comments are mild compared to what coaches are saying to each other.
The commissioners are not oblivious to this reaction.
"I'm not looking forward to Naples, that's for sure," said Steve Hagwell, president of the HCA and ECAC commissioner, referring to the annual coaches convention each April in Florida. "But I'm not going to hide from it. I'll be there and address whatever the coaches have to say."
The decision is inexplicable to the coaches, who were thrilled with what Kelly had been doing. The news is made even more hard to understand because the commissioners haven't given any reason for the move, even privately to the coaches.
"The commissioners have not informed the coaches as to what the issues are and were, and so before going off and condemning someone, I think as coaches we need to be given the facts by the commissioners," Gwozdecky said. "I've spoken with one of the commissioners, and he was not willing to share the reasons."
Kelly was ultimately asked to resign because the commissioners believed he was making clandestine maneuvers intended to consolidate more power for College Hockey Inc. itself, sources tell College Hockey News. Essentially, rightly or wrongly — and it could be argued that it was a very good idea — Kelly wanted to be the commissioner of college hockey, with all of the authority that the title implies.
As far as the coaches were concerned, this was favorable, if not outright encouraged. To the commissioners, this is an impractical concept outside the established structure. To them, dealing with Kelly became like dealing with a renegade coach who skirts the system and is combative with his own athletic department, but nonetheless wins a lot of games.
Of course coaches would want a single "commissioner" to deal with, one with the power to do what they want — the same way Gary Bettman does for NHL owners.
Unfortunately, the NCAA doesn't work this way.
The amount of attention placed on Paul Kelly as a theoretical head of college hockey, was not commensurate with the amount of authority he actually had. That is inevitably and understandably frustrating.
The commissioners supported Kelly's main goals, but did not support the way he tried to make them happen. After trying to manage this situation for two years, a straw broke the camel's back.
Ultimately, the commissioners believed that Kelly, more and more, was lobbying overtly for more authority. He was going to the NHL, the athletic directors, and to anyone else who might listen.
College Hockey Inc. was created to be the "marketing arm" of college hockey. Kelly's mission was to do outreach, educate, hold seminars, and be the public face of the sport to many people, particularly in Canada, who needed to know what college hockey was all about. It was an attempt to offset the obvious advantages of the Major Junior system, which can speak to kids at will. Because of NCAA regulations, college hockey coaches are not allowed to speak to prospects until they are 16.
In fact, this end run around the NCAA regulations almost ran afoul of the NCAA itself. When the commissioners were establishing College Hockey Inc., the NCAA wanted to know how this would work, so that it wasn't in fact taking advantage of a loophole in order to "recruit" players earlier.
But with so many pressing issues, the coaches wanted Kelly to do more than just marketing and giving speeches. They saw his background as an attorney with deep connections to the NHL and its players, and general stature in the pro hockey world, as something that could be leveraged further.
Coaches are notoriously frustrated by the NCAA's labyrinthine politics, and saw College Hockey Inc. as an opportunity to get around all of that. Their oversight group, comprised of some of the sport's most well-known names, like Gwozdecky and Jackson, met with Kelly to push their agenda with him.
Take, for example, the issue of helmets. Coaches have by and large loathed the idea of full face shields/masks since it was legislated in 1980. They believe it actually makes the sport less safe. They also believe that Major Junior uses half shields vs. full shields as yet another selling point. Kelly was someone that could work the angles with the NCAA from a legal perspective to try to make inroads in this department.
Then, of course, there's the ongoing battle with the Canadian Hockey League — the overseer of the Major Junior system — over players jumping ship. That fight is being fought on a number of fronts, including trying to get NHL rules changed, and/or working with the CHL on an understanding.
And Kelly was in discussions with the NHL and NHLPA on increasing the Draft age to 19, as part of the new collective bargaining agreement. Coaches believe this could help alleviate the pressure on kids looking to leave, if they haven't even been drafted yet.
Who better than Paul Kelly to facilitate these talks, and to help move the needle?
"He got us into discussions we've never been able to do in the past," Jackson said. "He was able to get that done. ... We had somebody that was never really able to challenge things in that way before. Everybody respected him at the NHL level."
According to Hagwell, Kelly had the blessing of the commissioners to do what he could in those departments. The coaches' priorities may have been different than the commissioners, but the efforts weren't at odds with each other. In fact, the commissioners group was largely trying to do the same things prior to Kelly's hiring.
Inevitably the structure of the NCAA will be at odds to getting many of these things accomplished. The commissioners are people who understand and work within that system. Kelly was trying to overthrow the system.
There's a point often lost in the haze — criticizing the NCAA's labyrinthine politics is really just criticizing your own school, or collection of schools. The schools have the authority, and the schools themselves — via the athletic directors — hire the commissioners, who in turn, collectively, hired Paul Kelly.
Meanwhile, the commissioners created College Hockey Inc. at the behest of USA Hockey. After first sending a "shoot for the moon" proposal to the NHL for money to fund something like College Hockey Inc., the NHL decided to give $8 million to USA Hockey instead. Thus, the commissioners needed to appeal to USA Hockey for a piece of that pie.
"They didn't say, 'Here's a pot of money, go do what you want,'" Hagwell said. "It's a grant. Each year we have to report to them on what we did."
That means College Hockey Inc.'s masters are the commissioners, followed in turn by USA Hockey and the athletic directors.
Trying to make an end run around all of that, as enticing as it may be, was going to inevitably lead to conflict.
The sentiments of Gwozdecky and others point to this conflict.
"The overwhelming feeling from the coaches (is), 'How did this happen? Why did this happen?'" Gwozdecky said. "As far as the coaches were concerned, Paul was doing a terrific job for college hockey. He had our support. And he was working for college coaches.
"He reports to the commissioners, he works for the 58 D-I programs."
The question is whether the commissioners should have, or could have, put up with the difficulty of handling Kelly, because of the myriad of great things he brought to the table. Or did his maneuverings rise far enough above insubordination to make the relationship no longer sustainable?
Would it have made a difference if Tom Anastos, former CCHA commissioner and now Michigan State coach, and former president of the Hockey Commissioners Association, still been in the group? Anastos was a point person pushing for the hiring of Kelly to begin with. And Anastos himself was the man who was leading the efforts previously to get a dialogue with the NHL and so on, responsibilities that ultimately went to Kelly. But Anastos knew the parameters under which he was working, for better or for worse.
Kelly wanted more authority. He wanted the NHL to directly fund College Hockey Inc. instead of having to deal with the measly sum being steered from USA Hockey. He considered, at the coaches' encouragement, ideas like being in charge of supplemental discipline (suspensions) across all leagues, scheduling, and helping with television contracts.
He wanted to be the commissioner of college hockey.
But that job doesn't exist.
There was an actual proposal, in the regular coaches survey from the NCAA hockey rules committee, to have a central figure handle discipline for non-league games. The coaches shot it down, and it never was put on the agenda.
Because there are so many institutions with so many different interests, it's not feasible for a "grand poobah of college hockey" to exist — as much as we might all like to see one. If there was, we wouldn't have had all of last summer's turmoil. But who is going to create that position? Who is going to give that authority? The executive director needs to play inside the system that exists, for better or for worse. That is not the fault of the commissioners.
It could be argued that the commissioners should have kept managing this situation, since Kelly probably wasn't going to ever succeed in superseding anyone's authority anyway.
Instead, the commissioners believed the situation could no longer be sustained.
Some have argued that the commissioners were just trying to keep power for themselves. I don't believe that makes any sense.
As Hagwell said, "Even if they did (give up authority), if my group of ADs came to me and said, 'You're no longer involved with College Hockey Inc., no longer a part of the HCA, you're solely doing the work of our league,' what am I going to say? I'm going to say 'OK.' ... So to say I'm out for power. I'm not. I spend an inordinate amount of time on broad issues, like amateurism. If someone wants to take that off my plate, I'm not going to fight it.
"I'm not sitting here fighting it saying, 'Oh my gosh, don't take supplemental discipline off my plate.' Every time I'm calling someone to suspend their kid, that's not a good thing."
Really, the schools themselves have the power and authority to make decisions, and you're not going to get 58 schools — each with much larger athletic departments and institutional hierarchies within them — to give up their authority to a college hockey commissioner.
The hierarchy exists to bring order to the madness. And yes, it also gets in the way sometimes, as any bureaucracy does. It's a catch-22. But if you decide to break a law because you don't think it's just, don't be surprised when you get arrested.
The commissioners obviously know about Kelly's strengths. They obviously know, and were pleased, that Kelly was getting to the table with the NHL and NHLPA. They obviously knew that firing him would enrage the coaches.
Yet they did it anyway. Why? Out of hubris? Out of power? Out of stupidity?
That can hardly be the reason.
This is a difficult and unfortunate situation. Everyone, from coaches, the commissioners, to ADs, to fans wanted Paul Kelly to continue to do the great things he was trying to do for college hockey.
But the commissioners did what they believed they had to do, not for petty reasons like power, but for good, albeit difficult and debatable, reasons. And it's up to everyone to decide whether they were justified in that or not.