BERNE - In Part Two of IIHF.com's exclusive interview with Paul Kelly, the NHLPA Executive Director discusses player safety, draft rights, the need for a transfer agreement and other issues.
Each year, there are a number of 18- and 19-year-old players who are eligible to play in the World Juniors but are not released by their NHL clubs for what is a never-to-be-repeated opportunity. Is there enough interest on the part of the eligible players to make being released for the tournament something that you would want to include in a future CBA?
I tracked that this year fairly closely because I knew a lot of the young players: Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, fellows that were playing full-time for NHL teams and had played successfully in the World Juniors the year before. I can tell you that once those guys cross that threshold and are playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs or whomever, their focus is on playing for their NHL team. I don't think that they really would have liked to have been pulled out of that environment and put into the World Juniors for two or three weeks. And they would rightfully fear how that would be taken by their teammates and fans of the team. They want to continue to develop. So it's not an issue we feel strongly about at this point. It actually gives an opportunity for a new generation of players to participate in the tournament each year and show their talents, expose themselves to scouts and teams around the world. I would envision a lot of resistance from NHL general managers about losing those young kids at critical points in the season. That's a fight I don't want to pick at this point.
One thing that the IIHF wants, and that you aren't in favour of, is extending the two-year period for signing drafted European players to four years. Why are you opposed to this?
We believe that players should be treated equally, regardless of what country they're from, in terms of their NHL draft rights. We don't see a reason why Russian and European players should be treated differently than North American players and therefore be exposed to a larger signing window. I have heard the argument that players from some European countries are believed to mature later than their North American counterparts. I don't know if that is accurate or not. I suspect you could come up with examples that would support it and examples that would contradict it. We're for fairness across the board. Getting the signing window to two years was the product of long, detailed negotiations. It's fully supported by our membership and the agents who represent them. I see virtually no likelihood that we will change.
We offered to enlarge the mandatory return provision as a kind of middle ground. Under the old transfer agreement, only 18- and 19-year-old players had to be returned to their home country if they didn't make an NHL roster within the first 10 days or two weeks of a season. We offered to expand that to cover 20- and 21-year-olds, and perhaps to consider other modifications, to give the player other options if he doesn't make an NHL lineup to start the season. To play in the minor leagues in Canada, or to play in his home country. If it's a better fit for him to go back home, even if his NHL GM would prefer to see him play in Manitoba or some place, it should be the player's right to choose. If you did that, I believe more players would go back and play for their European teams for another year or two. I think that would be a good thing for hockey generally.
Is having a player transfer agreement important to the NHLPA and the health of international hockey?
Yes, it is. I'd like to see us have a new agreement in place, one that works for everybody. One that provides enough financial support to the European countries so that they can continue their developmental programs, but does not damage their programs. We recognize it's important for the European clubs to be strong, to have enough talent to stock their teams and bring crowds into the buildings and provide players for their national teams. There are a lot of competing interests here, but when you don't have a transfer agreement, what you have is hostility. I don't know that hockey without a transfer agreement is in the best interest of the European or Russian hockey communities, because most young hockey players that have a certain level of talent will want to play in the NHL. They will want to follow in the footsteps of their countrymen that have excelled in the NHL and gone on to make lots of money and live in nice places, and come home as heroes. That will not only always exist, but I think it'll continue to expand. So that draw of the NHL will always be there. The NHL will exist without a transfer agreement, and in fact, will flourish without a transfer agreement.
But I'm not so sure that the flip side of that is true. A transfer agreement will help to ease relationships. We went a whole year without money flowing back to the European federations, millions of dollars that could be used to develop those programs. That's unfortunate. It saved money for the NHL and NHL clubs. But for hockey generally, we should find something that works. The IIHF has made a proposal. We've responded. They've sent back a counter-proposal. Now the ball is in the court of the NHL and NHLPA to respond again, and I hope we find something that works.
If a NHLer signs with a KHL club, for instance, are you happy for the player? Or is the PA only intended for active NHL players under contract?
We represent players, so any time a player can end up in a situation that's good for him and his family, we're happy for him. If Jaromir Jagr, at the end of his career, is able to get a contract that pays him handsomely to play hockey in the KHL, we're fine with that. I don't think there are a large number of NHLers who would seriously consider playing in the KHL. I think it would be difficult for many guys from the US or Canada to play in any other city than Moscow or St. Petersburg. It's a huge leap for European players as well as North Americans. I don't think there's a risk that pure dollars are suddenly going to siphon off players from the NHL. Yes, there'll be three or four or five guys every year, and that's fine. We wish them well. I understand Richard Zednik, who played for Florida last year, has committed to the KHL for next season. Richard's a fine player and we enjoyed having him, but I'm sure he'll do well in the KHL. He's opened up a spot for another young guy to come in and take his NHL role.
What about the Victoria Cup? How do you see this event evolving in the future?
We hope it stays as it is. The NHLPA strongly supports the Champions Hockey League. We think it's good for hockey. I know the NHL strongly supports it as well. My understanding is that the NHL had a chance to show its financial support to the CHL. We're not in a position as a union to do that, but if we can show support to the CHL and European hockey generally by having one of our NHL teams participate in the Victoria Cup, then that's something we'll do. I know they originally wanted to have the Stanley Cup champion, and I tend to agree with the NHL that that's a difficult thing for us to commit to long-term. The Stanley Cup champion team plays until the middle of June. They have a very short off-season. To then require that team to get up to par quickly so they can participate in a competitive world championship in September is, I think, asking a bit too much of our players. Finding one of our stronger, high-profile teams, like the Rangers last year or the Blackhawks this year, to represent the NHL is a good balance. It makes for exciting hockey.
From the standpoint of player safety, what is the PA's position on potentially adopting IIHF rules on things like hits to the head or no-touch icing?
No-touch icing is something we've discussed with our Competition Committee. I can tell you there isn't a great deal of support or traction for it. What we did do is modify our icing rule to make it clear there can be no physical contact between two players, either body-to-body or stick-to-body, on a race to the puck on an icing play. If there is, it's met with very strong penalties and possible suspensions. That worked very well this year in our sport. Last year we had a very bad injury to Kurtis Foster of the Minnesota Wild as a result of one of those contacts in a race for the puck. That's what we want to eliminate. But for the most part, we like the fact that touch icing keeps the game flowing. If an offensive player beats the defenceman back and keeps the play alive, it can generate scoring and excitement in the game. We don't look to go to no-touch icing.
When it comes to player safety and head shots, I think we have been on the cutting edge of that in the NHL. We have actually proposed that the league adopt a rule prohibiting certain hits to the head, not all. We think it needs to involve the following elements. First, you have to have a player who's in a vulnerable position. Second, you need to have an attacking player who either intentionally or recklessly targets the head of the opposing player and makes contact with a hand, elbow or a shoulder, which is different from how it is now. Right now, in the NHL, you can see a guy coming across the ice with his head turned, and you can drop your shoulder and strike him in the head and do serious damage, and there would be no penalty. Those are the types of hits that we feel need to be eliminated. We're not in favour of eliminating all hits to the head, simply because in our sport, there are many times when it's a truly accidental or inadvertent hit to the head. It just happens. Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins is 6-foot-9. He hits guys in the head all the time, because he towers over them, and it's impossible for him to play the game without making contact with the heads of other players. We have a lot of guys that are 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7. We also don't want to stifle the physical play in the sport. In NHL hockey, you've got to be tough. It's a tough, tough game. Fans like the hitting. Players like the hitting. If you adopt a no-hits-to-the-head rule, you are going to impact that somewhat. We're trying to ensure player safety without altering the game.
If you could do something that might not help the PA very much but would be good for the general health of the game, would you do it?
Let me put it this way. I have a fiduciary responsibility, a duty, to represent my members. That means I have an obligation to all of them. I can't just allow my personal views to govern my actions if my views are different from those of my members. That said, there are occasions where I'm called upon to make decisions that perhaps aren't embraced by all my members. One example would be the question of fighting in the NHL. I probably have 60 or 70 players who are fighters, enforcers, and don't want there to be any changes whatsoever to fighting in hockey. That said, I do think we could make changes. I don't think we should allow take-downs; I do think that guys should keep their helmets on in a fight. I don't particularly like pre-arranged or staged fights that don't arise from the emotion of the game. I think that fights that arise from coming to the defence of a teammate, particularly a goalie, are part of the sport, and as long as they don't get carried away, I don't have a problem with it. I have advocated positions that haven't made all my members happy. But that's part of the job. I won't hesitate to take positions that are good for the sport as a whole, and good for my members in terms of health, safety, working conditions, and compensation, and I'll continue to do that.
As a leader on the grand jury investigation into Alan Eagleson in the 1990s, you know better than anybody about what went wrong with the relationship between the NHLPA and its involvement in international hockey at that time. What kind of checks and balances does the PA have in place today to make sure that nobody uses international hockey as a means to illicit personal profit again?
It's remarkable, the extent to which we have checks and balances now. We have an ombudsman. We have an advisory board. We've separated the role of general counsel from the role of executive director. Mr. Eagleson was the executive director and general counsel. In addition, at the same time as he was running the union, he was the lead agent for probably most of the players in the NHL--certainly most of the star players. He also sat on a number of boards. He had no ombudsman, no advisory board, no oversight whatsoever. He also had young players, most of whom didn't have more than a high school education and didn't have the necessary background to call him when they thought things were suspicious or questionable.
Things have changed dramatically. Players are smarter. They pay attention. There are layers of audits and checks. The pendulum has probably swung too far, but if anyone understands why, it's me. [laughs] I saw what happens when you allow too free a rein. Of course, I come from an anti-corruption environment. For many years, I put people in jail for dishonesty. Drug trafficking, corruption, bribery. I'm really hostile to that. I really try in a very careful way to avoid it or any appearance of it. So even if I didn't have an ombudsman, an advisory board, and all these layers of checks and balances, I would never cross that line. Needless to say, I don't think there will be any more Alan Eagleson-type stories in the National Hockey League Players Association, certainly not while I'm around.
LUCAS AYKROYD & ANDREW PODNIEKS