Paul Kelly Explains Surprise Resignation, What May Come Next

In the days following Paul Kelly’s abrupt resignation from College Hockey, Inc., speculation and various reports have surfaced as to the reasoning behind the surprising end to Kelly’s tenure. Aside from a radio interview in Toronto Wednesday night, Kelly’s version of what transpired in the lead up to his surprise resignation has gone largely unheard. The man who joined the hockey elite when named the executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association approached United States of Hockey about sharing his side of things.

Kelly confirmed to United States of Hockey that he was asked to resign or face action from the Hockey Commissioners Association, which oversees College Hockey, Inc.

Todd Milewski of USCHO reported Monday that Kelly’s forced resignation was a result of “an erosion of trust in Kelly from the commissioners of college hockey’s five Division I men’s leagues,” according to a source. Milewski’s source also informed USCHO that Kelly had recently approached athletic directors from ECAC Hockey to give CHI a more leading role in college hockey.

Kelly admitted that he had talked to two athletic directors on this topic, one of which was from ECAC Hockey, but that his intentions differed from what USCHO’s source relayed.

“The notion that I was out shopping to talk to athletic directors, that didn’t happen,” Kelly said in a phone conversation. “The suggestion that this was a power grab, that I was involved in trying to wrestle power or a money grab, if that’s a picture they’re trying to paint, that ain’t what happened at all.”

As Kelly revealed to Bob McCown on his radio program Wednesday night on Toronto’s The FAN590, the former CHI executive director was in the middle of an underlying tug-of-war between the commissioners and many head coaches in Division I college hockey about the scope of College Hockey, Inc.

“For many months I was trying to stay out of it,” Kelly said of the disagreement between college hockey’s coaches and commissioners.

That was until Kelly caught wind that his tenure at College Hockey, Inc. may soon come to an involuntary close in an effort by one unnamed commissioner trying to save money, essentially.

“When it was pretty clear that my tenure was going to come to an end relatively soon anyway, I figured I should try to help [the coaches] at least by getting some input from some people who could deal with the issue,” Kelly said.

Kelly laid out the coaches’ vision for College Hockey, Inc. in an email to United States of Hockey: “A committee of veteran coaches, while pleased with our efforts, believed that College Hockey, Inc. could be a more vital and impactful organization for D-I college hockey.  Their vision was to increase the entity’s areas of responsibility, and to change the structure of oversight and supervision from the Commissioners to a representative committee of head coaches and ADs.

“They felt that since one of the primary objectives of College Hockey, Inc. was education and recruitment of new prospects, as well as the retention of existing student athletes, that this fell more into the domain of coaches rather than administrators.  The coaches wanted a greater voice in setting the strategy, and deciding how best to employ the limited resources of the organization.  Given my legal background, the coaches sought my advice and input on how best to bring their desire and vision forward for discussion and decision in an appropriate forum.  Since I worked on behalf of the coaches, I felt a responsibility to assist them in determining how best to bring this issue forward.”

Kelly admitted in our phone conversation that his conversations with the athletic directors were handled quietly and confidentially, in an effort to gather information, advice and input on this topic, not to set the wheels in motion on anything.

“What the Commissioners appear to have found objectionable, was my effort to help the coaches frame this matter for consideration at the approaching coaches’ convention in April,” Kelly said.

The argument can also be made that the commissioners took issue with Kelly’s perceived lack of transparency on this issue with them. That could have contributed to “the erosion of trust” as it was put to USCHO.

Kelly, however, felt that he had a responsibility to both parties. He cited that while the HCA signed his pay checks, he felt he also worked for the coaches. That feeling of responsibility to both parties stems from how College Hockey, Inc. was developed.

The wheels on College Hockey, Inc. started rolling due to the coaches’ desire to create an outside entity to assist in the education and recruitment of prospective student-athletes and combat the looming threat of the Canadian Hockey League.

The commissioners association was integral in securing the funds necessary to build College Hockey, Inc., an effort spearheaded by then CCHA commissioner and president of the HCA, Tom Anastos, who is now head men’s ice hockey coach at Michigan State University.

Despite the joint effort to build CHI, the vision of its scope has become increasingly different, and came to a head ultimately with Kelly’s forced resignation.

While Kelly had plans for stepping away from College Hockey, Inc. in about six months, he was still disappointed that he will not be able to see through some of the initiatives he helped get off the ground.

“I had hoped to see through some of these important tasks and initiatives that we had started and it bothers me that some of these things are going to fall by the wayside,” Kelly said.

The former NHLPA executive director expressed great faith in CHI’s interim director Nate Ewell and Jeff Dwyer, CHI’s director of education and recruitment, but also feels the organization will miss his prior experience and connections within the hockey community.

“There’s nobody that can immerse himself in the CBA negotiations with the league and the NHLPA the way I could have. Or negotiate with [CHL President David] Branch or deal with the heads of the ice hockey federations in Sweden and Finland and Norway. They just don’t have those kinds of links and a lot of that stuff just won’t happen.”

In addition to his disappointment of not being able to see the job through, Kelly took particular issue with a report published Thursday by Adam Wodon for College Hockey News.

Wodon got reaction from a few veteran college hockey coaches and Steve Hagwell, ECAC commissioner and president of the Hockey Commissioners Association, on this situation, but did not speak with Kelly. (Editors note: After his piece was published, Wodon expressed on Twitter that he was under the impression that Kelly did not want to speak with CHN and offered an invitation for the former executive director to speak with CHN.)

Both Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson and Denver’s George Gwozdecky, two giants in the college coaching fraternity, expressed deep dissatisfaction with Kelly’s surprise resignation and high praise for the former CHI exec.

“Paul Kelly is the best thing that happened to college hockey in 25 years,” Jackson said to Wodon.

“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,” Gwozdecky told the CHN editor.

Gwozdecky also informed Wodon that he questioned one of the commissioners about the reasons for Kelly’s force out and received none.

Wodon also shared this bit of information from inside sources, which somewhat corroborates USCHO’s earlier report:

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.

After our initial conversation, Kelly reached out through email to respond to some of the accusations levied in the College Hockey News piece, particularly the above text.

“The premise of Mr. Wodon’s article – that I was akin to a ‘renegade coach who skirts the system and is combative with his own athletic department’ and that I was lobbying to be the ‘Commissioner of college hockey’  – is utterly false,” Kelly wrote.

“At all times during my tenure as Executive Director I respected the NCAA system and worked within it.  I also did not have a combative relationship with the Hockey Commissioners.  In fact, I respected them individually and as a group; we worked well together and enjoyed each other’s company.  They helped to shape and support the mission of College Hockey, Inc. and did what they could to give us the tools needed to succeed.  We spoke often, including during monthly conference calls, and I regularly provided them with detailed written status reports of our efforts and any significant new developments.  The notion that there was friction, or that I was acting independently or contrary to their wishes and objectives is untrue.”

Kelly also took issue with the notion that he was trying to overthrow the NCAA system.

“Just three weeks ago I traveled to Indianapolis for a several hour meeting with officials at the NCAA to discuss a range of topics, from dealing with family advisers to the recruitment of players from Europe.  My purpose in doing so was to the ensure that we fully understood and abided by NCAA by-laws and interpretations, and identified areas for possible future legislative change.”

Kelly reiterated that this was not a power grab, but that the issues raised by the coaches are valid and should be closely examined.

“We certainly were not trying to overthrow any system or structure, and neither were the coaches,” Kelly wrote. “However, the coaches did deserve to have their views and vision for what College Hockey, Inc. could and should be properly addressed at the April convention.  It appears from recent events that the Commissioners would rather not have this issue raised for legitimate discussion and deliberation.

“The committee of veteran head coaches may have had a different vision of what College Hockey, Inc. could or should be, with sound reasoning and years of experience behind their views, but I was content to fulfill my responsibilities regardless of who was overseeing our efforts.”

In our prior discussion, Kelly also expressed that this issue of the tug-of-war between coaches and commissioners is far from over.

“This issue isn’t going away,” Kelly said.

“That someone is asked to resign or resign, who is in the process of just trying to bring to the floor [the coaches'] desire to at least have an intelligent discussion about something; if the act of talking to athletic directors about that and trying to figure out how do you at least start this discussion is enough to get rid of the person, something is dramatically wrong.”

As suggested in a post earlier this week, the recent happenings with Kelly’s resignation bring the many fractures in college hockey’s power structure to the forefront.

That coaches are unhappy with the direction of college hockey and the limitations of the NCAA are unsurprising. In fact, it’s stereotypical more than anything.

College hockey is faced with a set of unique challenges that no other NCAA sport faces. That is a fact. While Kelly insisted that he had no aspirations for power, he did outline what an independent entity could do for college hockey, based on the ideas of a committee of veteran coaches.

“I think [an independent entity] can and should [exist],” Kelly said.

Without a hint of irony, Kelly pointed to the Canadian Hockey League as an example of what an overseeing umbrella can do for a fractioned organization.

“There’s the Ontario league (OHL), Western Hockey League, and the Quebec league (QMJHL) than overarching that, they have the CHL office. It’s the CHL which negotiates a number of things like national sponsorships and national television and deals with their Memorial Cup. They have an umbrella entity that handles certain aspects and it’s critically important and it gives them a certain consistency and clout in working together as a 60-team super league.”

Hard to believe the man recently dedicated to challenging the CHL for recruits paying such a high compliment, but it is an intriguing analogy.

College hockey’s conference structure, as evidenced most recently by the flurry of realignment, operates very much in an every-man-for-himself fashion.

“Having commonly five conferences, soon to be six conferences, and you may one day have the Ivy League spinning out for seven conferences, what you get is very parochial interests,” Kelly said.

Kelly pointed to the recent television deals struck by Notre Dame and Hockey East with NBC and the NCHC’s recently announced deal with CBS Sports Network, as two instances where it was singular conferences looking out for their best interests. Kelly surmises that an umbrella that oversees all of college hockey could potentially work out television deals that benefit each conference, pointing to the ECAC and Atlantic Hockey being left “to the side.”

Kelly said that the coaches’ vision for an umbrella entity would find a way to ensure that all conferences reap some rewards.

“In their view, if you have a commissioner or a central office, an objective, independent office, whose job it was to oversee the best interest of college hockey: Marketing, promotion, certain business initiatives, championships, special events, dealings with the NCAA on bylaw issues and rule issues, etc., that in fact you would help all of the programs. You would particularly help the small programs that don’t have the resources, the have nots, that need an entity to kind of look after their best interests.”

Kelly admitted that College Hockey, Inc., could be the beginnings of that entity, but that it didn’t have to be. It could still operate as the educational arm, while a different group takes on the other responsibilities under the umbrella.

There is some concern on Kelly’s part that the current setup with the commissioners looking out for their own interests won’t help the game advance or expand.

“[The commissioners] are looking at these developments through the lens of their conference, their region of the country,” Kelly said. “They’re not looking at it through the lens of the greater good, the longterm best interest of the sport as a whole and that’s what concerns the coaches.”

It appears that a good portion of college hockey’s coaches are in concert on their vision for the game. That could cause a certain amount of consternation at the annual coaches convention in Naples, Fla., this April.

“This issue isn’t going to fade,” Kelly said. “The fact that the coaches hold a certain view of what college hockey can be, should be, will be in the future, if anything, the recent developments will cause the issue to come to the surface, which is ultimately probably going to be a good thing.”

While the coaches and the commissioners butt heads, none of either party’s ideas or visions for the future can come to fruition without a collective green light from the real power brokers in college athletics:

“The athletic directors. They employ the coaches. They employ the commissioners,” Kelly said. “How do you get that group to reach some consensus?”

That’s the million dollar question, and one that won’t come with an easy answer.

What happened to Kelly isn’t the story. It is what comes next. Clearly, the coaches and commissioners are not on the same page. This issue is far from over and there is no clear vision of when this might end.

With the athletic directors, a group of individuals with more than just ice hockey to worry about, holding all the power, how will they deal with this current disconnect? Are we headed for a quiet return to the status quo? Will the coaches have enough pull with their bosses to force more college hockey introspection? Who will support the commissioners?

What we do know is that Paul Kelly will not be taking part in this discussion, which is certain to dissapoint the former College Hockey, Inc. executive director who had become a strong voice in the ever-changing college hockey landscape.

“My capable staff and I worked very hard to market college hockey and expand its geographic footprint, to educate elite young players of the many benefits of playing NCAA hockey, and to seek out new approaches to protect and promote the sport,” Kelly said. “I am proud of the work we did, but disappointed that I will not be able to see through to conclusion many of the important and ongoing initiatives we had underway.”

While Kelly is disappointed that his tenure came to an abrupt end, college hockey will always have a place in his heart.

“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the role and enjoyed being an advocate for college hockey. I believe very firmly in the mission and the message. That’s never going to change. I’ll probably continue to be an advocate for college hockey regardless of what I do in the future.”

Coming off of a near insufferable off-season in which the entire college hockey world was turned upside down by realignment, it appears we are headed for yet another messy summer; the kind that even the most seasoned janitor wouldn’t go near.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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12 Responses to Paul Kelly Explains Surprise Resignation, What May Come Next

  1. Larry Kettlewell says:

    A fascinating expostion about “hockey politics” at a different level. I think Kelly did what he thought was best under the circumstances.

    My only qualms with Kelly was the incestuous relationship he had with the USHL. He, for the most part, ignored or paid lip service to the rest of the junior hockey world where there is a burgeoning amount of talent. Sadly, Kelly didn’t make that bridge to college hockey on behalf of many young players and hockey moms and dads.

  2. Can the commissioners, bring Paul back,

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  4. goon48 says:

    Chris, great article.

  5. vizoroo says:

    Very insightful.
    Wondering how the NCAA relates to CHI.

  6. Bump says:

    Very insightful and informative article. Thank you for the proverbial “rest of the story.”

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