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New chief has right credentials for cleanup job

Time will eventually tell the story, the way it always does, but Paul Kelly was a respected figure long before he was named executive director of the NHL players association. The former federal prosecutor 10 years ago helped take down former union chief, and thief, Alan Eagleson, giving him instant credibility.

And that's half the battle.

Credibility had been missing for four years while Bob Goodenow betrayed his constituents and Ted Saskin infuriated them. Over time, players stopped trusting their leadership. When it comes to dysfunctional families, these guys made the Osbournes look like Ozzie and Harriet.

Kelly should expect many twists and turns in the miles ahead. The union needs to decide whether it should reopen the collective bargaining agreement in 2009. The players need to understand that their responsibilities extend beyond the forecheck-backcheck-paycheck mentality that helped cripple the union.

The union took a step forward last week when it ratified a new constitution that basically gives players more say in NHLPA operations. The document was constructed for the players, by the players. At the very least, it was a sign union members cared after years of ignorance and indifference.

For starters, it blew up the executive committee that railroaded Saskin into the top job before a group of players led by Chris Chelios sent him into exile. It also constructed two positions at the top, one for executive director and another for general counsel. The same man previously held both positions, which gave him too much power and not enough people looking over his shoulder.

"If one person has too much power, it's never a good thing," said Blue Jackets center Michael Peca, the former Sabres captain. "It's time for a union leader who doesn't think he's Jimmy Hoffa, who's not trying to establish his own legacy."

The Boston-based Kelly was the first to agree. He comes aboard as a relative outsider. He represented Marty McSorley in British Columbia after the defenseman clubbed Donald Brashear over the head with his stick a few years ago. Otherwise, he was a former intramural hockey player at Boston College, a Bruins fan and law partner.

It makes him an independent thinker, which is what the union needed.

Kelly wants to build a strong working relationship with Commissioner Gary Bettman without ignoring the professional distance between them. He plans to be flexible but tough, which is better than taking a hard-line stance on everything, the way Goodenow did, or being a pushover, as Saskin was. It's a start.

His biggest charge will be guiding the union in the right direction while doing his part to keep the league healthy. It means making sense of the CBA that he said reads "like the tax code" and has been "lawyered to death." That's the easy part. The hard part is turning his credibility to trust.

Less than two weeks into the job, he's on his way.

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Balancing the schedule

Look for NHL honchos to take a serious look later this month at a proposal from the Red Wings outlining an 84-game schedule that would balance the schedule, alleviate incessant whining from Western Conference teams and make more money.

The Detroit Model is as simple as its name. It calls for every team to play six games against division opponents, three games against the remaining 10 teams within their conference and two games against each nonconference opponent. The two extra games would need to be cleared by the NHLPA and likely wind up in a small raise.

Teams from the West have complained about the unbalanced schedule, in part because fans only get to see certain players (see: Crosby, Sid the Kid) once every three years. This would ensure every team visits every city. It's expected to be the talk of the board of governors meetings later this month in Pebble Beach, Calif.

Sounds good, especially for Western New York. Patrick Kane, Kevyn Adams, Lee Stempniak, Todd Marchant and Aaron Miller all play in the Western Conference. Brooks Orpik visits twice a year with Pittsburgh.

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Winging it

The Red Wings (11-2-1) entered the weekend with a seven-point lead in the Western Conference, but that could double before December. The Winged Wheels will spend their next nine games looking to beat up Central Division foes Columbus, St. Louis, Chicago and Nashville.

Detroit, which was 22-4-6 in its division last season, is coming off a 20-day stretch that included 15 days on the road. The Red Wings are off until Wednesday after sweeping Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary for the first time in two decades. Folks, this could get frightening.

Henrik Zetterberg tied Norm Ullman's 47-year-old club record with a point in 14 straight games to start the season and was the NHL's leading scorer. Goalie Chris Osgood, 7-0 this season while Dominik Hasek nurses a sore hip, is 14-0-5 since last losing in regulation Jan. 6.

"When we looked at the schedule as a coaching staff at the start of the season, we were scared to death," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "You never know how things will go."

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Low rent district

Oilers rookie Sam Gagner, who with South Buffalo's Kane made up two-thirds of the best line in OHL's London last season, can start counting his money. The Oilers have decided to keep him in the NHL rather than ship him back to junior for more seasoning.

Gagner, who turned 18 in August, is the youngest player in the league. He had a goal and seven points in his first 12 games. The Oilers were on the hook for his $1.75 million salary this season when he played his 10th game. He's house-sitting for injured captain Ethan Moreau with Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert.

"Ethan doesn't want any rent," Gagner said. "Is that great or what?"

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Modano's moment

Mike Modano received a standing ovation against Chicago last week for tying Phil Housley's record for most points by an American-born player. One problem: Modano was given undue credit for an assist, making for an awkward moment.

Modano had five points in his first 12 games and was moved to the fourth line while chasing the record. Stars fans knew he was struggling and erupted when the assist was announced. He knew a change was in order but stood uncomfortably and waved to the crowd because, well, there was little else to do.

Hey, Mike, wanna get away?

"It kind of caps off the whole month," Modano said. "I'm glad it's over."

Modano will attempt to tie the mark again Monday when the Stars face Anaheim.

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Around the boards

*The Flames locked up their core for the next five years when they signed goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to a six-year deal worth $35 million. Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr previously reached extensions. "You're good for a long time," GM Darryl Sutter said. "That's why you want to sew up that nucleus and then add to it from within."

*Ottawa locked up its two best players for the next six years after Jason Spezza signed a seven-year deal worth $49 million. The contract is loaded up front with $8 million coming in each of the first five years and $9 million over the final two. It's similar to the extension Dany Heatley signed. FYI: Spezza is making less than Thomas Vanek.

*Talk about putting money where your mouth is, Wild defenseman Brent Burns lost a false tooth last week on the charter to Denver. Burns had the charter company give the tooth, found between two seats, to a cab driver for delivery to the hotel. Cost: $46, plus tip, peanuts for a guy who just signed a four-year contract extension worth $14.2 million.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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