So far, it seems the NHLPA's playbook has been to try to drive a wedge between the owners -- proposing that some of the top teams' record profits be shared with struggling teams, pitting the haves versus the have-nots. According to The Columbus Dispatch, at least one player agent is hopeful that it's working:
The small-market owners could find themselves siding with players against the large-market owners, the power-brokers in the league."I think as many as eight NHL owners would accept the NHLPA’s initial proposal," said an NHL player agent who spoke to The Dispatch on the condition of anonymity. "And there’s probably four to six others who would find the proposal acceptable enough that they could tweak a couple of things and live with it." But don’t expect any owner to acknowledge that publicly.
It's easy to figure out which teams those would be -- the bottom feeders. The red ink bleeders. The takers, not the givers.
The problem with this strategy? The wealthiest teams naturally oppose increased revenue sharing. And they're the ones who have traditionally wielded more power.
The League's Power Base: Big Eastern Teams
First, let's consider the big players on the NHL's Board of Governors. Two names pop up over and over in discussions of power and influence: Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider.
As the Dispatch article notes, Snider and Jacobs are power brokers who absolutely hate the idea of 'small market welfare':
Boston owner Jeremy Jacobs and Philadelphia owner Ed Snider hold considerable sway with Bettman and are strongly opposed to revenue-sharing. Those clubs, along with Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, the New York Rangers, Toronto and Vancouver, would stand to lose the most revenue.
Jacobs has been the chairman of the Board of Governors since his election in 2007. Snider is the head of Comcast (which owns NBC), and board's longest-sitting member.
Want a sample of this power? Snider has so much influence he is credited with keeping the NHL's TV deal with NBC and refusing to let ESPN have any part of it.
Are All Votes Created Equal?
Wait a minute, you might be thinking. How can those two hold so much sway? Jeff Z. Klein makes this point at the NY Times: "Even if Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider, the powerful Bruins and Flyers owners, are against more revenue-sharing, in the end each team gets only one vote on a collective bargaining agreement."
As much as I'd like to buy into the idea that the have-nots could lead a glorious revolution and usher in a new era of peace and parity, I have a hard time believing it. Take the Board of Governors' discussions on the issue of division re-alignment:
"When you talk about making changes like that, you first have to understand where the power base lies in this league," said one former NHL GM, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It’s definitely not with the Columbuses and Dallases - it’s with (Flyers owner Ed) Snider and (Bruins owner Jeremy) Jacobs and (Rangers owner James) Dolan, the East Coast owners."
In the end, the Eastern teams did accept a slight increase in travel, but they also emerged with a better chance of making the playoffs (14 teams in the East competing for 8 spots versus 16 in the West). They gave up a little, but still enjoy a considerable travel advantage. The "power base" didn't hurt itself.
Even though it's on an entirely different issue, it's interesting that this anonymous GM accepts as a simple matter of fact that a power imbalance exists on the Board of Governors. What the big East teams want, the big East teams get.
Can you imagine Bettman presiding over a deal which angers the richest, most powerful owners? I'm afraid I can't. Everything about his tenure has been about keeping those owners happy -- and they've rewarded him with a contract extension and a hefty salary. His message will be: "You don't have to fight each other at all. If the owners stay united for a few months, all of you will win."
Is There A Way Out Of This Stalemate?
Some combination of salary rollbacks and increased revenue sharing would help small market teams. Sports economists would point to contraction or relocation. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like there is a lot of genuine interest in creating a healthy, well-balanced NHL. The owners can more readily survive a lockout, and seem intent to wait until the players break. It would seem easier to keep 30 billionaires united than hundreds of out-of-work hockey players.
If there's a way out of this deadlock, I don't know if waiting for the owners to split ranks is the best strategy. If I was Donald Fehr, I'd spend some time thinking about what could motivate the big dog owners to move away from some of their contract limit proposals. After all, the wealthy clubs haven't been keeping player salaries down. They're not great fans of parity or five year contract limits. They spend whatever it takes to secure their free agent targets and find loopholes to spend beyond the cap.
Ed Snider wanted to use his wealth advantage to get Shea Weber on his team -- $110 million dollars with a massive bonus poison pill. It didn't work -- but it was yet another reminder that wealthy owners want to bring the largest stars into the biggest markets where they will generate the most profit.
It seems as if at least a short lockout is inevitable. Let's just hope those wealthy owners don't want to miss out on this year's chance to win the Stanley Cup.