Note: I am not an insider. I have no personal knowledge of the inner workings of the NHL nor of what goes on behind closed doors at owners’ meetings. The following is based entirely on public reports (and, okay, tweets) by MSM media and my own speculation, hence the category tag on this post. Take it, then, with as many grains of salt as you feel are appropriate.
Watching this lockout unfold as a fan is like being the child of a particularly acrimonious disintegrating marriage. When the NHL and the PA come out before us, they’re courteous enough. They tell us they love us and it isn’t our fault and next year they’ll take us out for ice cream, won’t that be nice? But when we stand outside the boardroom doors, we can hear the yelling from within, the tones of shrieked curses, low threats and bitter recriminations. We know the fight is ugly and it hurts us to hear, yet still we stand there, trying to puzzle out the words. Trying to figure out why.
Listen long enough to the CBA battle and one begins to hear certain refrains. Certain words come up again and again, and among the more interesting of these words are “Ed Snider” and “Jeremy Jacobs”. When writers write of the owners’ decision making process, these names come up often as the driving forces behind and beneath the united front. Jacobs and Snider, we are told, are the most powerful owners. But why?
Power is difficult to define and even more difficult to trace. Although it has tangible expressions- big offices in high places, stuffed bank accounts and handshake photos with presidents- it is not itself a tangible thing. Like charisma, like sex appeal, it is more felt than seen. Everyone wants things, but some people get what they want. Everyone speaks, but what some people speak of, somehow, eventually, tends to happen. Not always, maybe, but more often than not. Power is the ability to exert pressure on history. It’s the ability to make the world other people have to live in.
Where does power come from in hockey? How do some people, like Snider and Jacobs, come to have such overwhelming influence on the direction of the game? Why are we living in a League of their making and not Ted Leonsis’, or Wayne Gretzky’s, or for that matter, our own? Who the fuck died and made them kings? I cannot say for certain. But I have a hypothesis.
Most hockey power has its root in either money or skill. A man (and I say ‘man’ because it is extraordinarily rare for a woman to approach any sort of power in hockey) may either buy his way into the elite or win his way there. But neither wealth nor ability alone is enough. They bring the potential for power but not actual power, and neither can explain the extra leverage enjoyed by our two favorite owners. Snider and Jacobs have obviously never played, and although wealthy in the extreme, they are hardly the richest members of the owners’ cartel. They don’t own the most successful teams or the most profitable. Snider’s television interests obviously put him in a uniquely influential position, but he’s not the only owner with media pull. Their disproportionate influence over their peers and the League as a whole doesn’t come from dollars.
It comes from survival.
Maybe we shouldn’t call it survival. Endurance, maybe? Perseverance? Longevity? What is the term, exactly, for the power that comes from staying and waiting? That slow-growing, geologic power that builds up over decades and, eventually, comes to move mountains? Whatever it is, it’s what Snider has, and Jacobs has, what Leipold and Melnyk seem to aspire to, and what the poor-whoevers who next take up Phoenix will never get.
The stubbornness to simply stick around is one of the most underrated aspects of power formation, especially in small, closed good old boys’ networks such as NHL ownership. Power relations within such communities- within any tightly-knit, access-regulated club- depend heavily on networks of personal obligation. Favors. Loyalties. Quid pro quos. We often think of these things as a sort of corruption, but they’re no more than trades that have become unstuck in time. I do this for you now, you do that for me someday. Spend enough time with other humans and we all play this game sooner or later. It’s how business- all business, every business- gets done.
But in order to participate in such a network, you’ve got to be there, and most NHL owners just aren’t there very long. In fact, NHL ownership is remarkably unstable. In the interval between this lockout and the last, a mere seven years, fifteen teams have changed owners. A couple of the sunbelt teams have been sold more than once. Fully half of the owners negotiating this CBA weren’t around last time, and it’s fair to suspect that half of them won’t be around for the next one. Sports teams attract passionate owners, but it seems they also attract quite a few dilettantes.
In Gary Bettman’s tenure as commissioner, he’s seen teams bought and sold more than 50 times. 25 of the franchises (including the expansion teams) are owned by men who were not around when he was hired. True, Bettman works for ‘the owners’, but from his perspective, when he looks around the 30 faces at that big table, he knows that half those men have one foot out the door. If history is any guide, they’re negotiating a document that many of them won’t be around to see the end of. He will outlive them.
So for Bettman, or for any League official, or for any up-and-coming owner looking to build his own power base, the fundamental question is: who in this room am I going to have to deal with five years from now? Who is going to be able to help me when I have an agenda that needs pushing later? And who is likely to be around to fuck me if I piss him off?
Jeremy Jacobs has been running the Boston Bruins since 1975. Ed Snider is the only owner the Flyers have ever had in 45 years of history. In hockey time, they’re like freakin’ Galapagos tortoises, they were here before Bettman and they’ll be here when he’s gone. Hell, they were here when the modern NHL was created and they’ll probably be here still when it’s a cold, dead husk. Their wishes, their preferences, and their memories have an enduring influence on everyone who has to participate in the same network of obligation with them. To anyone who has to sit in a BOG meeting, their friendship is valuable, and their animosity is not worth the risk.
Which is perhaps why it was so easy for Bettman to get a unanimous vote of all 30 owners in support of the lockout. Technically, he only needed eight, but so long as the most powerful and durable owners are among those eight, there is absolutely no good reason for any other owner to dissent. The lockout is happening. It is already a fact. Better to give the powerful what they want and hope that it buys them some sense of future obligation to you than to fight, hopelessly, against a foregone conclusion.
Who else might we consider to have power through endurance? Harley Hotchkiss of Calgary had it, before his death, and apparently N. Murray Edwards, of the same ownership group, carries some of it on- he’s been reported as active in formulating the owners’ CBA proposals. Possibly Rocky Wirtz inherited it similarly, but I do not know if such things pass down genetically in the NHL. Mike Ilitch (DET) and James Dolan (NYR) have been around long enough to accrue geologic power, but I couldn’t say what they use it for. But that would be the end of it. Most NHL owners are, frankly, noobs.
The power of longevity creates organizational inertia; the interests of the few and long-lived overwhelm the interests of the many transients. In any group, it’s easy for old members to influence new ones, who are still trying to carve out their own place in the network, but harder for influence to go the other way. If you wonder why the League is so conservative and slow to change, this is part of the answer. If you want to know why the owners, collectively, seem so unconcerned with solving the problems of unprofitable franchises over the long term, even though so many of them run said unprofitable franchises, this is most of the answer. The owners of unprofitable franchises will be gone soon enough, in Ed Snider time. They give up, quit the game, move on. You want to see your team’s interests reflected in CBA proposals? Get the same guy in that room for twenty years.
Could, as David Shoalts suggested, the newer owners band together in open rebellion against Snider and Jacobs? Could the Canadian teams, who make most of the League’s money, somehow parlay that into enough power to stop the lockout? Doubtful. Between the owners who want a lockout in order to make more money and those who want one because they’ll lose less money, Bettman has his eight votes and more besides. Surely there must be fissures among the owners already, but it does none of them any good to make them public. Particularly when there is a players’ association right there to take money from, comprised of even weaker, more transient members of the hockey family, a union whose incentive to crack strengthens with every missed game that passes. Even the youngest, least powerful owner can afford to play the waiting game longer than the PA, and would vastly prefer to cannibalize his players than someone in his own small, closed circle of obligations.