By Stu Hackel
On Wednesday's blog post, we touched on the unity of the players and their rising anger level during the lockout. It prompted a comment regarding the unity of the owners. "You write about the possibility of players getting angry but what about the owners?" asked the reader who goes by JamesLandonJones. "How long until the owners in small or non-traditional hockey markets, or with otherwise shallow pockets and bills to pay, begin to apply pressure on Bettman? If this happens, where will the cracks first appear? How long before it begins? Has it already begun? Fehr has shown great skill and foresight in rallying his union. Does Bettman have the necessary skills to do the same with ownership?"
As I replied, ownership's situation is far more difficult to assess than the players'. For one thing, team owners are under a gag order so, unlike the players, we rarely get a sense of how they are reacting to their loss of income (although we did hear from Eugene Melnyk of the Senators this week, saying nothing especially noteworthy apart from "We should be playing hockey" and not slamming the players or NHLPA as the reason why we're not; it seems he did not have had prior approval to speak publicly). But Gary Bettman is a strong leader and he's aided by the fact that he only has to control 30 owners. Don Fehr has more than 700 players spread over two continents and many countries to deal with.
But the reader's comment did raise the issue of divisions among the owners and the prospect that a group of them could effectively reverse the course of the current CBA logjam.
Among the many musings in his weekly column, CBC's Elliotte Friedman speculated on the various owners' respective levels of support for the lockout. "The commish has three groups of owners," Friedman wrote, "the ones who want to play; the ones in the middle, including Tampa and Nashville, who want a better collective bargaining agreement but recognize not playing is worse; and the hardliners. It would be a mistake to underestimate the last group. There are several who would rather cancel the season than accept a bad deal because they are hemorrhaging money and need immediate satisfaction.
"While the players believe Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs is calling the shots, an educated guess at the final group includes but may not be limited to Anaheim, Columbus, Florida, the Islanders, Phoenix, St. Louis, Washington and Dallas -- enough to block any agreement from getting done."
Why are a handful of owners out of 30 "enough to block an agreement from getting done?" Because in labor relations matters, league rules require 3/4ths of the owners to oppose the recommendation of the commissioner, and right now, the commissioner is doing the bidding of the hardliners. By comparison, the NHLPA is ruled by majority vote.
Now, it's interesting to note that the San Jose Sharks, a club one could consider the poster-boy franchise for all the NHL believes is wrong with the last CBA -- a well-run, competitive organization that says it still loses money -- is thought to be in Friedman's middle group who want a lower salary cap but oppose blowing up the season to get it. According to Kevin Kurtz of CSN Bay Area, "It’s hard to imagine that the Sharks owners would be among those pushing for a 'my way or the highway' approach that has so far been utilized by Bettman and his hardliners."
But are the specific owners of those teams that Friedman names actually the hardliners? This is an extremely murky area. Friedman always has excellent sources but even he isn't entirely certain which owners are where. "It's tough to lock it down because owners are forbidden to discuss this stuff," he writes. "Attempts to talk to a couple were politely shot down."
A number of people would put Philadelphia's Ed Snider on that list, although he's part of the Comcast family and Comcast is not pleased that its NBC hockey programming has vanished. Another reputed hardliner is Calgary's Murray Edwards, but Friedman leaves him off his list. Was Washington's Ted Leonsis included because he sat on the owners' side of the table at the last CBA talks in Toronto? Well, so did Edwards. Snider has sat at the table as well. Is it possible for an owner to attend the talks and be a moderate? Who knows?
Minnesota's Craig Leipold is also identified by some as a hardliner, although Friedman believes he wants the Wild to play eventually in order to capitalize on the buzz generated by his offseason free agent signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Placing Leonsis among the hardliners seems curious, as Sean Gentille pointed out in The Sporting News. Leonsis has stated that one of his team-building principles is to pay the best young talent well to win their loyalty, and Gentille wonders if Leonsis has abandoned that standard is now trying to extricate himself from the lucrative contracts he's handed out to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
That is, of course, what Suter first alleged about Leipold before backing off his original comments. ("If we could access Ryan Suter's phone records," Friedman wonders, "whose numbers do you think we'd see on his list of calls from last weekend?")
There is certainly speculation in some circles that Snider would like to get out from under the ridiculous nine-year $51 million deal his club gave goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Similarly, Jacobs is currently on the hook to 35-year-old Zdeno Chara for $6.9 million annually for the next five years and another season of $4 million, not to mention the $6 million per season he'll pay Milan Lucic for three years starting with the next campaign.
It would be madness if the narrow interests of the leading owners, based on their own clubs' situations, were holding up progress in the negotiations but, true or not, that belief is floating out there among some in the hockey community. In fact, after a few European players claimed they'd remain overseas if their salaries are reduced in the next CBA, it sparked some belief that a segment of ownership would be glad if they did. Whether of not some owners actually think that way, it gives you an idea of how toxic the current atmosphere is in the hockey community.
In the video accompanying the Gentille piece linked above, The Sporting News' Jesse Spector provides a different approach to which owners he thinks are the strongest backers of the league's negotiating position and which might waver. He believes the ones who are most concerned about the long-term damage that the lockout might cause would potentially have a different stake in shutting down the season. The franchises in cities where attendance has historically been weakest, he says, probably want to play -- and he names Dallas, Florida, Tampa Bay and Nashville as examples -- while the owners who have taken an active role at the bargaining table -- from Boston, Calgary, Minnesota and Philadelphia -- reflect markets where support has been historically strong, where missing games and home gates would be less critical.
"Where you have to worry," Spector says, "is where you're just starting to make headway or you've been losing fans anyway because you've been a struggling team and maybe those fans go away forever or find other things to do."
And yet, lots of people assume some of the bigger, more successful clubs in major markets want to play as well, like the Red Wings, Blackhawks, Rangers and Canadiens. The Kings are believed not to want to lose the momentum generated by their first Stanley Cup. The Devils, whose great run to the Cup Final boosted their season ticket sales over the summer, supposedly want to play, too.
But when you see Florida and Dallas on Friedman's list of hardliners and Spector's list of clubs who probably fear losing the season, you understand the danger in trying to accurately figure out which owners line up where in the lockout. I think, considering the absence of hard information, we're only assuming, sometimes guessing, and really can't know.
Meanwhile, I found one of the "30 Thoughts" related to NHL ownership in Friedman's column truly heartening. "Lightning owner Jeff Vinik continues his 'Community Hero' project," he reported. "Essentially, one person is honoured at every home game and given $50,000 towards their charity of choice. Vinik is continuing the initiative on what would have been game days. The first honoree donated to a shelter that helps war veterans re-integrate to society. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher will make some of the presentations along with Vinik and Lightning chief executive officer Tod Leiweke." For a guy who isn't getting any income from his hockey team, donating $50,000 41 times -- that's over $2 million -- in what could be a non-season is really quite something. Of course, Mr. Vinik is a wealthy man, but still, he didn't have to continue the practice.
It made me think of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy this week here in the Northeast. We know how generous the hockey community can be in times of disaster. Imagine how the NHL would have responded had it been up and running instead of locked down. Steve Lapore, who writes the excellent Puck the Media blog and is a New Jersey guy, tweeted on Wednesday night, "Guessing the lockout is preventing a lot of NHL organizations and the league itself from donating to victims of Sandy. Beyond shameful." And he added later, "Dear NHL and NHLPA: If you want to give us any hope that you can work together, why not combine on a donation to Hurricane relief efforts?"
I was watching the San Francisco Giants' World Series victory rally at City Hall on Wednesday (hey, they are my ball team and have been since their days in the Polo Grounds) and they started things off with a pledge that the team would match all the players' donations to the Red Cross for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. They didn't have to do that; they're a continent away. But they want to acknowledge their roots in New York and it made me extra proud to be a Giants fan. I'd be just as proud if the hockey community -- which has a bunch of important franchises in the disaster zone -- could set their ugly mess aside and act against something far more ugly.