New college initiative is ready to put Kelly at the head of the class
Paul Kelly, given the heave-ho Aug. 31 as boss of the NHL Players Association, will be named again as an executive director Tuesday afternoon in a news conference held in the shadows of Harvard Stadium.
But this time, Kelly will be named executive director of College Hockey Inc. His mission: raise the profile of Division 1 NCAA hockey and spread the word, mainly to US and Canadian-born youngsters, that the college game is a viable alternative, if not a preferred option, to playing major junior hockey in Canada. It can also be the route to the NHL.
“Like one Division 1 coach said to me recently,’’ said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, “it’s like they’re selling Edsels in Canada and we’re selling Cadillacs down here in the US. But the problem is, they’re selling more than we are.’’
Kelly, meanwhile, gains some separation from the clunker he was dealt by the Players Association, which remains in disarray after the ham-fisted decision to fire him just prior to Labor Day. It has since become obvious that he was the victim of a carefully crafted palace coup, which has subsequently led to the resignations of the many, shall we say, characters who were eager to inherit control of the NHLPA.
While the NHLPA tries to right its listing and rudderless ship, Kelly now will attempt to bring more positive attention to the US college game - a challenge, he said, that he is eager to tackle.
“Not only do I love the challenge,’’ said Kelly, “but I love the idea that I get to build this initiative from the ground up. I knew I wanted to remain in hockey in a meaningful way.
“I suppose I could have gone back to law, be that with a big firm or just hang my own shingle and start taking cases. But I love the game, and after getting a taste of it with the PA job, it wasn’t something that I wanted to give up. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity.’’
College Hockey Inc. will be headquartered in Newton, not far from Kelly’s home in Needham, and he soon will hire a staff. Much of the mission will center around a marketing campaign, one that no doubt will be directed at the parents of teen-agers who begin to make important career/education decisions around hockey as early as age 14.
Under NCAA rules, a prospect must be 16 before a college can recruit him, which means, in many cases, the top Canadian junior programs have a two-year advantage in the process. College Hockey Inc. will try to neutralize that edge.
“As soon as that kid plays junior,’’ reminded Bertagna, the former Harvard goalie, “he’s lost his eligibility ever to play in the NCAA. Not all players or their parents are aware of that when they’re making their decision. So, sure, it’s in our best interest that they know that, but it’s also in the interest of that player and his parents.
“Obviously, there are kids who are making the right decision to go the major junior route. If they don’t have an academic bone in their body, and their dream is to play in the NHL, then that’s fine for them.
“But we’ve proven over and over in the college game that the good players will still make it to the NHL, and if they don’t, they’ll have had the experience of playing top hockey, and they’ll have that college degree for the rest of their lives.’’
Kelly, said Bertagna, proved to be the best candidate from among some 30 very strong applicants for the position. The funding for the job, which will have Kelly speaking on behalf of the 58 Division 1 college teams in the country, is coming from USA Hockey, which is re-purposing funds it was granted by the NHL to boost hockey interest and awareness in the US.
“A lot has changed in the college game over the last 10 years,’’ noted Bertagna. “For instance, there are 42 Division 1 players playing this year from California. That’s an unbelievable shift. A 14- or 16-year-old kid from California doesn’t know Seattle from BU, which isn’t the case of a kid from, say, Minnesota or Massachusetts - they know the culture.
“The Canadian junior programs simply do a better job selling their programs, and they’re now competing for kids from all over, including Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and New England, and everywhere else.’’
According to Bertagna, 10 years ago, there were 181 Massachusetts kids playing Division 1 NCAA hockey. A decade later, that number dropped to 129. New England-wide, the number fell from 288 to 197 over the same span. Going back just four years, only 65 Americans were playing in Canada’s major junior program. Last season, that number stood at 111.
“All the Division 1 commissioners are thrilled to have Paul aboard,’’ said Bertagna. “He brings credibility, skill, contacts, and personality to what we believe is a vital position.’’
Anze Kopitar - Here in the Hub of Hockey, we don’t get to see nearly enough of the Western Conference, but Kopitar, now in his fourth season, has blossomed into one of the game’s stars. He’s big (6 feet 3 inches/220 pounds) and slick, a lefthanded-shooting center who, headed into yesterday, led the league in points (32). He averaged nearly 70 points in his first three seasons with the bottom-feeding Kings and could boost that to 110-120 this season. Born in what was Yugoslavia, he was the No. 11 pick in the ’05 draft. The 204 points he compiled in his first three NHL seasons nearly double Joe Thornton’s 108.
Joe Sacco - The rookie bench boss in Colorado, plugged in when Patrick Roy opted not to return to Denver, has managed a surprising revival in the Rockies. Headed into yesterday, the 13-7-3 Avalanche stood second overall in the West. The former BU standout has energized and emboldened a young, inexperienced lineup, and journeyman goalie Craig Anderson has his blocker and glove in the Vezina balloting.
Lightweight sticks - They break much too easily (note the number of times they shatter when a player receives a pass). They cost far too much. They diminish puckhandling skills. Contrary to initial belief, they have not added to scoring. The worst part: With nearly everyone able to rip off 100-m.p.h. slappers (often earmarked for Bobby Schmautzville in the second balcony), more bones are being broken. Marc Savard has missed a month with a broken bone in his left foot, compliments of a slapper. Brian Gionta last week exited the Habs lineup, the broken bone in his foot - courtesy of a slapper - to keep him sidelined for a month. Time to go back to the future with wooden sticks.
The NHLPA - Buffoonery of the highest order. Late last week, the union had a court order served on its ex-ombudsman, Buzz Hargrove, the one-time head of the Canadian Auto Workers. Earlier this month, Hargrove resigned his post, only hours before the PA planned to can him (much like his predecessor, Eric Lindros, was, shall we say, nudged off the same job earlier this year). Reason for the court order: The PA wants to make sure that Hargrove has returned/surrendered all material in his possession that belongs to the PA. Now they have Donald Fehr, the outgoing boss of the Major League Baseball Players Association, guiding them in recrafting their constitution. It was Lindros and the union’s ex-general counsel, Ian Penny, who originally courted Fehr. Will these guys ever get it right, or do they just enjoy self-mutilation?
Coaching stability - Game No. 325 of the 1,230-game schedule was wrapped up last night, and all bench bosses remained in place across the Original 30. Meanwhile, headed into yesterday, the likes of Toronto, Carolina, Minnesota, Anaheim, and St. Louis had won but 29 of their 102 games. Consider Randy Carlyle (Ducks) and Andy Murray (Blues) the most vulnerable on that list.
Quebec City - The good mayor, Regis Lebeaume, had a few discussions/feelers with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about bringing back the NHL and is on record that he wants his beautiful city to build a state-of-the-art arena to replace Le Colisee. This can’t happen fast enough. If the bricks and mortar get in place, the league has to send its weakest link, Phoenix, to Quebec faster than a Boom Boom Geoffrion slapper.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.