NHL fans and pundits pinning their hopes of ending the lockout upon the upcoming NHL Board of Governors meeting on December 5 could be disappointed.
It’s expected NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will bring the governors up to date on the CBA negotiations (in which the league has now allowed US federal mediators to get involved) and their plans going forward.
Some pundits and fans are hoping moderate owners will use the opportunity to speak out against the lockout (something they cannot do publicly, thanks to Bettman’s gag order) in hopes of bringing about a vote to end the labor impasse and save what remains of the season.
The thought of a potential showdown between the hawks and doves among the NHL ownership could make for a potentially gripping boardroom drama, but hockey fans shouldn’t get their hopes up expecting this scenario to unfold.
Undoubtedly there are some NHL owners who aren’t pleased with the direction of these negotiations, though by doing so publicly they risk incurring several penalties for violating the league’s gag order.
Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula earned himself a phone call from the NHL commissioner for telling a reporter he didn’t want to discuss the lockout at the risk of losing some draft picks.
So did Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who was a vocal Bettman supporter during the last lockout, for his comments during a radio interview in early November, where he said, “we should be playing hockey by now. Everybody knows it, and we’re not.”
It’s unknown if NY Rangers owner James Dolan got one for voicing a similar opinion to ESPN’s Katie Strang back in September.
Montreal Canadiens owner David Molson came close to crossing the line in a recent interview with the Montreal Gazette. As a Gazette columnist observed, if you read between the lines of what Molson was saying, he’s not happy with his club (one of the NHL’s biggest money-makers) being sidelined by this lockout.
A recent Philadelphia Daily News report citing anonymous sources claiming Flyers owners Ed Snider was unhappy with the league’s handling of CBA negotiations drew an immediate denial from Snider and a swift rebuke from Bettman, who called the report a fabrication.
You know that report struck close to the bone for the usually composed Bettman to accuse a newspaper of making up a story.
Of course, we don’t know how upset Snider may be over the negotiations, but considering he’s one of the most influential owners in the league, the longest-serving member of the NHL Board of Governors, and a long-time Bettman supporter, any rumor hinting at his impatience is bound to raise eyebrows.
Several times in the past several weeks, I’ve cited Jonathan Gatehouse’s superb biography of Bettman, which provides an illuminating, well-researched examination of his tenure as league commissioner. What’s most striking is how much power and control Bettman wields, backed up by several of the league’s wealthiest and most influential owners.
Such is Bettman’s power that, as Gatehouse’s book reveals, he was successfully able to take down Dolan when the Rangers owner tried to stage a mutiny over his team’s internet rights.
As noted by Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star:
”Those who remember Dolan’s attempt to stage an anti-Bettman coup over the issue of Internet rights remember the sad truth of a crap-kicking. As Gatehouse’s book points out, not only did Bettman begin legal proceedings to strip Dolan of control of the Rangers, Dolan was also forced to write a grovelling apology for his actions that acknowledged he could have been kicked out of the league.
That, folks, is power.”
Dolan might still be smarting over that episode, perhaps still holding a grudge, but probably not enough to tangle with Bettman again.
Unless he could rally an overwhelming majority of the owners to his side (enough to overcome the eight votes Bettman needs to overrule any objection to his handling of negotiations), or one or two of the commissioner’s influential supporters changes sides, forget about Dolan – or anyone else – challenging the commissioner.
I don’t doubt Bettman may be facing pressure from some owners concerned this lockout could jeopardize the gains made over the past seven years, especially where their share of league revenue is concerned.
But if the hardliners (as listed by Sportsnet’s Mark Spector) still hold the whip hand – and given the recent stance from the league, there’s little reason to suggest otherwise – the upcoming BoG meeting will be little more than a rubber stamp approval of how Bettman and his team of negotiators are handling this CBA standoff with the NHLPA.
In which case, for a season-saving end to this lockout, the players will have to accept the league’s terms or face another lost season, which is likely what Bettman and his supporters are counting on.
After all, they have already shut down one NHL season to get what they want. Barring a surprising change in tack, there’s little reason to doubt they’ll do it again to bring the players to heel.