After one year as NHLPA's director, Kelly knows more tests to come

TORONTO -- It's time to stop calling Paul Kelly the "new" leader of the players' union.
On Friday, he celebrated his one-year anniversary as executive director of the NHL Players' Association.

"Today is the big day," Kelly told ESPN.com in an interview Friday.

Much has changed in his 365 days in office. The players' union was a divided group when Kelly came on board, still reeling from its controversial decision to accept the sport's first salary cap in order to end the NHL lockout three years ago. The NHLPA Kelly inherited was an organization teetering after two years of acrimony and infighting that saw the ousting of two successive leaders in Bob Goodenow and Ted Saskin.

His first day on the job, Oct. 24, 2007, Kelly stressed the importance of moving forward and coming together as a group. Just 12 months later, the NHLPA is stable, once again a proud outfit. Kelly also appears to have the full support of the 700-odd players in the league, not the least of which is the outspoken Chris Chelios, the hard-liner who led the charge to take Saskin down.

"I think the overall consensus is that the guys like him, he's very personable, he's a regular guy and that's what the players like," Chelios told ESPN.com on Thursday night. "And now, by surrounding himself with the right people, hopefully it's a chance to rebuild and get strong again. There's no question that's going to happen and he's going to lead us."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has also developed a solid working relationship with Kelly.

"Paul's first year seems to have come and gone rather rapidly," Bettman told ESPN.com via e-mail Friday. "I have enjoyed building a relationship with him and, while he continues the learning curve, I am hopeful that the league and the players' association will continue to work together for the benefit of our fans and the game."

"I'm pretty proud and pleased of the folks we have working here," said Kelly.

There have been a number of key hirings, 10 in all, and leading the list was the appointment of former NHL goalie Glenn Healy as director of player affairs. Healy, who is developing into a hugely important voice in the NHLPA head office, has the respect of players and the ear of Kelly.

Now comes the real fun for Kelly. Will the players opt out of the current collective-bargaining agreement this season? It's a question many hockey fans want answered. The NHLPA has a window to opt out after the fourth season. Otherwise, the deal goes six years. The union has until May 15 to tell the league its decision.

"We're well into the process now of taking the issue out to the field and discussing it with the players," said Kelly, who is in the midst of the annual fall tour on which he'll end up meeting with players on all 30 teams. At the end of each session, Kelly has the players fill out a confidential survey, which, among other things, asks them, "Do you want out or not?"

"Once we finish the tour in mid-December, we will tally up the votes of the players, we'll pass it along to the executive board [made up of player reps from all 30 teams], and the executive board will make a decision probably after talking to our legal and financial folks."

Kelly said the union won't delay in telling the league of their decision.

"One way or another, whichever way it goes, we'd like to lay the issue to rest," said Kelly. "If the players opt to terminate, then we might as well begin the process of a dialogue to come to a new agreement as promptly as possible. And if they opt not to terminate, then we ought to just put this issue behind us and know what we have ahead of us. I don't think we'll wait until May.

"It'll be the board's decision, but my recommendation would be once they've made that decision, we should announce it promptly. I would assume that by early January we'll know where we're at."

While he handles that hot potato, Kelly has a full plate of other issues he's juggling between his Toronto and Boston homes. One that's beginning to boil to the surface is NHL participation in the Olympics. The NHL and its owners have made it clear they're not very interested in participating past 2010 in Vancouver. They're clearly on a collision course with players.

"My sense from the discussions is that the players will overwhelmingly support continued Olympic participation into the future," said Kelly. "My view is that the world is a lot smaller than it was 10 or 20 years ago. While you can talk about the break in the season and the prospect of injury and the time differential, which may impact television here in North America, the reality is that the Beijing Games brought a lot of attention, got really good TV coverage and ratings both in Canada and the U.S.

"The global reach that you get from the Olympics, the positive way to grow the sport, players basically enjoy the opportunity to play for their country, there's pride, there's history -- we will fight with the owners."

Kelly said he understands the league's position -- owners want to keep their buildings going and not lose the momentum of the season; they're also concerned about the risk of players getting hurt.

"Listen, we respect their position. We know that it's motivated by factors related to the good of the game," said Kelly. "So, this is an honest disagreement and we'll work at it and hopefully we'll be able to have them see the light and come around to our point of view."

Just another major file on his desk. But Kelly, who left behind a successful law career in Boston, wouldn't have it any other way. He doesn't regret one bit taking the job a year ago.

Oct. 24, 2007 was a good day.

"My guess is that it's one of those days I will look back on in 20 years and probably consider it one of the highlights of my life, to be quite honest with you," said Kelly.

"And it's been an interesting ride since then."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.