BERNE – Paul Kelly, the executive director of the NHLPA, is in Berne ready to address the IIHF Council on Saturday during its Annual Congress. He is the first representative from the NHLPA ever to do so, and IIHF.com sat down with him to discuss various international hockey issues. This is Part One of a two-part interview.
Why did you ask to speak to the Council and what are you going to say?
I’m a big proponent of international hockey, and in the short time I’ve been on the job—18 months—I’ve dealt with a number of international issues, preparations for the Olympics, the World Championships and World Juniors, so we have a growing relationship with the IIHF. I want to get to know the key players to a greater degree, and I want to talk about how we view the international stage, from the perspective of the players, and what we’d like to see in the coming years, and about cooperation. There are a lot of tensions right now over contracts, transfer agreements, things we should be able to get beyond for the benefit of the game.
How do you see hockey growing?
I think it’s important to press into other geographic areas. We’d like to see the sport grow more in the Far East, China, unusual places like Australia, Israel, maybe South America, the non-traditional places. We’d like to help promote growth. It will be difficult and will take a long time, but if we make appearances, televise games, we can gain a foothold, I think. There are a number of tensions we have to get through, but I think the IIHF can take a leadership role in this regard. I think René Fasel has done an effective job doing that, and he has to keep doing that. I think the Olympics are a big part of that. There is no bigger event to expose our sport to non-traditional countries. Swimming is a great example. In Beijing, swimming was exposed around the world in a way never before, and my understanding is that after the Games there was a huge growth in the number of people who signed up for swimming classes and racing teams around the world in the aftermath of Beijing. I think we saw some of that in the United States following the Miracle on Ice in 1980. There was a spurt in hockey, and we hope Vancouver will do the same.
So if the players want to go to Sochi, how do you get the NHL on board?
Between now and Sochi, our Collective Bargaining Agreement comes to an end, and another one has to be put in place, so there will be a window of opportunity to negotiate various terms, and one of the items will clearly be the Olympics, and not just Sochi but beyond. We will have some conclusion. Maybe the new CBA won’t have provision to go to the Olympics, or, more likely, we will convince the NHL that this is the way to go and it will be written into the CBA. I’ve spoken to many owners who want to go to the Olympics, and I’ve spoken to most of the general managers and they also share that opinion. But there are some people, for very legitimate reasons, who say that to take a break in a critical part of the NHL season for two full weeks is not good business. That said, the Olympics are such an important vehicle to promote the game and the sport that it shouldn’t be a substantial issue to overcome.
Is there something we can learn from soccer where the World Cup isn’t viewed as competition to pro leagues but something that is complementary? How do we get past this in hockey, where the view is often that these events are competing with the NHL?
We strongly support the regular, periodic playing of a World Cup of Hockey. Somehow we need to blend the three big events, the Olympics, the World Championships, the World Cup, and do it in a way that is good for hockey. You can over-saturate the market. René and I do have a little bit of a different view on this. I think holding the World Championships in an Olympic year is probably too much. In my view, it makes more sense, and makes the World Championships a more important event, if we hold it every two years and not overlap with the Olympics. I’d like to see it worked out so that every year there is one major event, without conflict, and I think the various constituents have to sit down and look at the next ten years and decide how to lay this out. I’m a proponent of breaking the NHL season every year for two weeks, every February. One year we should do the Olympics, one year we should do something special for hockey, hold a worldwide youth tournament, a hockey summit, then the World Cup, maybe in Europe one year and North America the next. That said, the NHL doesn’t share my view right now. Everybody’s got to give a little for the greater good. We need to do a better job of making the sport more accessible to people.
One of the issues we’re seeing become more important at the World Championship is insurance because player contracts are so large now. What are your views about handling this?
That is a difficult issue. We don’t support putting restraints on contracts. We believe there should be maximum flexibility by NHL general managers to sign guys to long-term contracts. For example, if you have Alexander Ovechkin, you want him to be part of your team for as long as you can. You don’t want to sign him for three years and then run the risk of losing him. He’s such a tremendous athlete. He has single-handedly grown the sport in Washington and the eastern United States. So, if the Capitals want to sign him to a long-term deal, God bless them. That said, I know insurance companies won’t insure past a certain number of years, six years, and when you get contracts that run into tens of millions of dollars, I understand that is a daunting financial problem. We somehow have to figure out a way to pool our resources so we can come at it from a position of strength and self-insure. In the meanwhile, we want to see the players adequately protected. There isn’t an easy answer to a complex problem.
There are always some 18- and 19-year-old players in the NHL who are still eligible to play in the World Junior Championships but clubs won’t release them. Is there enough interest among the players to include a clause in the next CBA to allow these players to go if they so desire?
I tracked that closely this year because I knew a lot of the young players—Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn—who were playing full-time for NHL teams had played successfully in the World Juniors. I can tell you that once those guys cross that threshold and are playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs or whatever, that their focus is playing for their NHL team. I don’t think they would have liked to be pulled out of that environment and gone to the World Juniors for three weeks. They want to be with their NHL team, developing as young players.
One thing the IIHF wants that you don’t want is to increase the window for signing drafted players from two years to four. Can you see this ever happening?
I don’t see it going to four. We believe that players should be treated equally regardless what country they’re from in terms of NHL draft rights, and we don’t see a reason why European players should be treated differently from North American players. I have heard the argument that some European players mature later than their North American counterparts. I don’t know if that is accurate or not. What we have done is increase the mandatory return provision. It used to be that 18- and 19-year-olds had to be returned to their home country if they didn’t make their NHL roster at the start of the season. We have expressed a desire to expand that to include 20- and 21-year-olds.
Do you think a new Player Transfer Agreement is important?
Yes, I do. We need an agreement that allows national leagues to develop players. It’s important for the European clubs to be strong and have enough talent to stock their teams, draw crowds, provide players for national teams. When you don’t have a transfer agreement, what you have is hostility and competition. I don’t know that hockey without a transfer agreement is in the best interests of European or Russian communities because most young players with talent are going to want to play in the NHL. The NHL will exist without a transfer agreement. In fact, it will flourish without an agreement, but I’m not so sure the flip side is so. We just went a full season without an agreement, and millions of dollars which could have been used to develop players and programs did not get back to the European federations, and that’s unfortunate. The IIHF has sent a proposal for a new PTA and we responded. They sent a counter-proposal, and I think the ball is in our court—the NHL and Players’ Association—to respond again. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to find something that works.
ANDREW PODNIEKS & LUCAS AYKROYD