It always used to be -- and probably still is actually --that with coaches, you never wanted to be the guy who replaced a legend, or someone hugely successful, if you could avoid it. You wanted to follow the guy who replaced the legend.
Think about it: Terry Simpson followed Al Arbour with the New York Islanders, Dave Lewis followed Scotty Bowman in Detroit, Bernie Geoffrion briefly followed Bowman in Montreal. All good coaches, but they had incredibly tough acts to follow, unwieldy comparisons with which to cope, often without the same calibre of team, and ultimately they didn't succeed. That's not to say you can't, it's just tougher.
Anyway, if the same logic applies to executive directors of player unions, well, let's just say that Paul Kelly's arrival as the new leader of the NHLPA is well-timed.
Kelly, of course, was the assistant U.S. attorney who helped take down former NHLPA leader Alan Eagleson, which makes his qualifications for the job unique to say the least. He is also a former defence lawyer of note, who represented Marty McSorley in his assault trial in Vancouver six years ago. He also once helped turn around a noted high school hockey program in Massachusetts. So he knows of the good, the bad and the ugly of the game.
And now he is the new leader of the NHLPA, following the deposed Ted Saskin. That's not to say Saskin followed a legend per se, but he did follow a guy, in Bob Goodenow who cleaned up the union, made them very strong, made tremendous gains for the players over his tenure and, ultimately, it was Saskin who presided over the recent crumbling of the PA.
But while he may not have the toughest of acts to follow, he certainly has a difficult job ahead.
Early indications, though, are that he is up to the task. When introduced yesterday, Kelly said all the right things: That he isn't looking for a fight, but won't shy away from one; that a partnership with the league is fine, but they don't have a meaningful one; that he isn't a militant, but he also isn't a pushover; that Gary Bettman doesn't have to be his pen pal, but there needs to be mutual respect to move ahead; that the association belongs to the players and that privacy needs to be respected.
He also said that one of first orders of business would be to get out and meet the players. Now, saying he was going to meet anyone but the NHL hierarchy would have resonated with the players, but getting out to meet the constituents is the right and important thing to do.
Kelly obviously realizes that perhaps the most important challenge he faces is getting the union over the Saskin days and the debacle the past few post-lockout years have been, while in the process making the association strong and united. He has to find a way to pull those who are viewed by their brethren as having sold out in the last collective bargaining agreement together with those who still are angry over how the negotiations concluded and the Goodenow era ended.
In addition to that heady task, he has to find a way to inspire and repair a group that was not just divided, but severely damaged coming out of the lockout.
"We want to learn from history and there have been dark days," he said. "We need to be mindful of what's occurred in the past, learn from those mistakes and move on."
Beyond that, his obvious next challenge is to take a working arrangement with the league that his members believe is flawed, particularly in the aspect of the "partnership" with the NHL, and somehow make it work better for the players. Kelly needs to find a way to get the players more input in business matters, to push the league in terms growing the business and better position them in the next CBA.
Whether Kelly and the union become militant in doing all of that is one of the great mysteries that will play out over the next while, but Kelly insisted yesterday he is not a militant, yet another good answer.
"If anyone thinks I'm going to fire the first shot across the bow of the NHL," he said, "they've got it all wrong."
Which speaks to the players realizing they need a leader who is tough, but not too hard-line as to be ineffective. So forging a relationship with the NHL that respects the "fine line" that got blurred is still another challenge he faces.
Indeed, if Kelly can meet all of those challenges, well, you won't want to be the guy who follows him the day he decides to leave.