Reinforcing the Stereotype.

Many NHL followers tend to see team owners as greedy businessmen who don’t care about the game or its fans. The actions of some them this year has only reinforced that stereotype.

One example was Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold claiming in April his team was paying too much in salaries and the current system needed to be fixed, only to sign Zach Parise and Ryan Suter two months later to a combined $196 million in identical, front-loaded, 13-year contracts.

The NHL’s decision to lock out its players once again (apparently agreed upon by unanimous vote of the 30 team owners) over unhappiness with the team-friendly salary cap system (which many choose to exploit with deals similar to those Parise and Suter signed with the Wild) was greeted with howls of dismay and anger among the league’s fans.

Detroit Red Wings senior VP Jimmy Devellano recently stirred up controversy with a poor analogy comparing the owners to “ranchers” and the players to “cattle”. Granted, Devellano isn’t a owner, but he’s been part of the Red Wings front office for decades, so his comments were widely interpreted to reflect those of his boss, and of the other 29 NHL team owners.

And, of course, there’s the current dispute between Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz and the Edmonton city council over the funding for a new downtown arena, resulting in Katz making subtle threats about relocating the club, notably with a well-publicized visit earlier this week to Seattle.

These instances only reinforce the opinion among NHL fans of the owners as greedy, self-centered Scrooges, who care only about how much money they make without taking into account how their actions affect their teams, and their loyal supporters.

It was only eight years when the owners had the support, if not the love, of NHL fans during a protracted labor dispute with the players.

The NHL line back then was the league was in trouble due to runaway players salaries, threatening the existence of several clubs (including some in hockey-mad Canada), and making games too expensive for the average fan. Only cost certainty, the league warned, would save them from certain doom.

Of course, the fact irresponsible spending by most teams was why salaries were so high was glossed over in favor of demonizing the players as greedy.

Still, ,ost fans bought into it, and when cost certainty in the form of a salary cap was implemented, they firmly believed the owners had saved the league from self-destruction.

But of course, that wasn’t the case, as once again the owners (through their general managers) were their own worst enemies, finding means to exploit loopholes within the very CBA they had touted as their salvation, leading to the current NHL lockout, turning the fans against them.

In the financial and legal sense, NHL teams belong to their owners. In the emotion department, however, those teams belong to the fans. It’s the strong emotional attachment of the latter which makes owning an NHL franchise – especially in markets where hockey is popular – so lucrative for the former.

So when a team owner complains he’s spending too much on players salaries, then turns around and signs two players for a combined $198 million over thirteen years, to most fans that’s not a shrewd business move, it’s hypocrisy.

When the league declares the teams feel they’re paying the players too much, largely a result of many teams overpaying for talent or exploiting loopholes in a largely team-friendly CBA, most fans see it as less an attempt to save struggling markets and bring salaries under control and more as a cash grab by influential, big market owners.

When a top executive of a popular, big-market team uses a poorly-chosen analogy describing players as “cattle”, it creates the impression among many fans the owners have little regard for the athletes upon which the success of their franchise depends, even one as tight-knit, and with longstanding roots in the community, as the Red Wings.

When a billionaire owner attempts to play hardball negotiating a new arena deal with a city council with subtle threats of relocation, fans don’t see it as a leverage tactic, but as a threat to the team they cherish. It strikes at the very core of those fans, prompting fear over a possible loss of the franchise, and anger at the owner.

NHL team owners aren’t cartoonish villains like C. Montgomery Burns ordering their lick-spittle to release the hounds on anyone they find vaguely threatening. Many of them genuinely care about their teams, location and fans, some much more than others.

All are extremely competitive, which shouldn’t be surprising, since all of them made their fortunes not as NHL team owners, but as captains of industry and business.

It’s that competitiveness in business, however, which seems to blind them to the impact their decisions can have upon the fans of their teams, perpetuating the stereotype of uncaring billionaires out of touch with the common man.

Owners invest the money, but the fans invest the passion, and it is that passion which keeps the NHL going.

That passion is the commodity the NHL team owners risk most by staging an unnecessary lockout at a time when the league’s popularity and revenue has never been higher.

6 Comments

  1. I agree with most what of you say Lyle. We Canadians seem to think that “hockey knowledge” is a birth right and that we all have an insight that others don’t (like Americans with football). Leopold would be hailed as a hero by Wild fans(and probably still will be) if this wasn’t a lockout year, the fact that an owner was willing to go into the hole to benefit his team, I remember the same thing when the Oilers signed Peca and Pronger.

    No-one can argue that the NHL needs a CBA in place to self-police. While that may seem ridiculous to some degree, sports are by their very nature a competitive environment, and has decades of history of teams being predatory under whatever rules they were given. We can all sit back and say ethically and morally the owners should be able to control themselves, but they can’t. Complaining about that is like complaining about hail storms, it’s still going to happen.

    So accept that the NHL is run by humans and played by humans and both sides have inherent flaws, and create a system that can limit how those flaws can affect the league as a whole. To me that is what the CBA negotiations are all about.

  2. Another good article Lyle. I guess it is all perspective. I thought the Jimmy Devellano analogy wasn’t really that far from reality. That cattle is the product on the farm and the players are the product on the ice. The fans do bring the passion, but also buy lots of tickets and merchandise- they are buying because of the product on the ice. Without that product there is no business.

    I hear what you are saying about the “competitiveness” of the owners/gms, but it still comes across as a lame excuse. How did salaries get so crazy? It is like they believe if you pay 4 million for a 2.5 million dollar player, they will put up 4 million dollar stats. You want a top line center but only a 2/3 line center is available, why would you give him 1c dollars?
    With owners shooting themselves in the foot with the contracts being handed out it is difficult to feel any sympathy for them.
    The NHL is a sandbox for billionaires, it is a business, a hobby, a poker game with 30 gamblers each with their own different size pile of chips in front of them and they all want to win. Some of the big gamblers could throw a few chips the way of the little gambler, but no way they are going to throw all their chips in and divide them up equally. and players aren’t pooling their salaries and divying up equally. A lot of greed all around.

    I guess there will always be rich and poor teams and players.
    As TB said, It is what it is.

  3. I get the Devellano analogy and when looked at in a certain context it does make some sense. In reality NHL players are little more than chattle and in the hard hearted business world owners are told by their CFO’s what their operating budget should be and if that budget is followed their profit will be X number of dollars, but for whatever reason some (many) NHL team owners choose not to follow that advice and allow (or tell) their GM’s to overspend and again for whatever reason that usually starts a stampede of other owners overspending on their teams.
    If owners told their GM’s that they only have X number of dollars to spend and like it or not that is the bottom line, they would still ice a team. Maybe not a very competitive team but a team all the same and one that allows the owner to make a profit and not participate in throwing the salary structure out of whack.
    If all owners/GM’s stuck to the bottom line then there would not be a salary problem in the NHL and players, while possibly making less than they are now, would still be making a damn nice living. This would or could not be called collusion as the players would only be paid what the market would bear and each team would have to stay strictly within their allotted budget BUT as we all know and have seen, team owners will not subject themselves to this type of financial restraint. They know that if they overspend and are able to show a loss then the NHL will give them money (welfare payments) because they didn’t play by their own rules.
    If any of the owners, who in their corporate world, had a General Manager who couldn’t or wouldn’t work within their set budgetary restraints they would fire him or her without a moments hesitation because in the real business world their competitors do not give them any help if they can’t manage the business, but in the NHL for whatever reason (Betteman looking bad?) if teams are losing money they pay him for being a bad businessman.
    This lockout has come about because of owners who can’t/won’t stay within the scope of their own budgets and have tried to paint the players as scapegoats but if they did not overpay they would not have this problem.
    Just as Lyle pointed out about how hypocritical Minnesota’s owner is being he could have just as easily named about 27 to 29 more owners who have acted irresponsibly and caused this situation to come about. I believe that the players are just asking for and in turn being paid what team owners will give them and not one cent more, and if that is the case then maybe they should get their ship together and quit trying to portray the players as the problem.

  4. Let us not forget that us fans are as much to blame as the owners for high salaries and not because we buy the high ticket prices.
    In many cities if the team is not very good attendance is bad and the fans scream ‘do something’.
    If teams are playoff teams but not real contenders the fans scream ‘do something to move up’.
    If teams are contenders and maybe 1 or 2 players away the fans scream ‘get what is needed’.
    and of course you have the teams that lose players and the fans get mad because they were not resigned even at way high salary.
    add all that up and you get the free agent frenzy and overpaid players.

    if your team does nothing you get ripped by the fans and in certain cities they stay home because they say the owner of the team is greedy and will not spend to win.
    of course in all the above you also have the media who also rip on the team because they did not improve and should have done something other than just sign a 4th liner.

    every team that signed free agents this year had their home fans happy and saying ‘well you have to do it and now watch out we are contenders’.
    every team that attempted to overpay or even poach at whatever cost was loved by its fans for trying and followed by’if we only signed that guy’.

    fans scream about high cost to go to a game but those same fans are the first to scream ‘ya baby we got him and him for 7 years 8m each’ and then gladly go to the games and pay another 15% for the tickets.

    so you have complaining about tickets prices and also you want the best team out there at whatever the cost or you stay home.
    then you have the signed players maybe end up bums and a waste of cash and the team stinks so you complain and stay home and the owners overspent and are stuck.
    of course the next year it happens all over again and the fans even after bad signings still say ‘get that guy no matter what’.

    now the players and their agents know this and of course you have all this stupid spending not only because some can but because they must.

    so you can call the owners hypocrites and full of crap all you want but the fans are just as bad or worse as they all cry about cost and yet still demand the best product available and at whatever the cost.

    the cap system had giant holes and it needs to be fixed and that is the bottom line unless you want this to keep spiralling out of control.
    both sides are at fault and we the fans have contributed our share with our own greed to do whatever it takes to win.
    so if you are going to take sides and point fingers remember to point at yourself too the next time your team signs that key guy for 100m and you and your fellow fans were the ones calling up radio stations or commenting on sites we have to have that guy and after the signing are going there and saying ‘ya baby’.

  5. Mr. Devellano’s remarks were very unfortunate and really displayed his ignorance at the situation he and the owners are in. What Mr. Devallano fails to understand is that his “ranch” is only a ranch BECAUSE there is cattle on it. No cattle, no ranch.

    If the rancher doesn’t like like paying for high-quality cattle, he can choose to go cheap and purchase lesser-quality stock, but he’s going to lose customers and not be able to charge as much as a result.

    The owners own the teams and the league. They pay top dollar and circumvent the CBA because they can and they want to. They know that providing the best quality players will put butts in the seats. Replace the NHL players with AHL talent and you’ll make AHL money. What this means is that the owners need the players just as much as the players need the owners.

    Eight years ago the players gave the owners what they wanted and that failed. I think it’s time that the owners get serious about addressing the economic problems in their league and stop trying to get the players they happily gave ridiculous contracts to to pay for it.

    What ever the players and the owners agree to, I support the players not giving back a penny of what’s already been agreed to in contract form – I would even go so far as to say that escrow should be eliminated. If a 50-50 split happens, fine. I think the owners need to stick to their obligations and wait for the revenue to get to a point where current contracts equal 50% of revenue and go from there. If revenue dips and a player gas a contract, he should get 100% of what was agreed to. Owners don’t have to sign the contracts they do, they want to.

    While we are at it, lets stops crying poor mouth and get rid of some of the mistakes that have been made in Florida and Arizona and stop pretending that a cold weather sport has a chance there. It doesn’t.

  6. Remember after the last lock-out. On all NHL ice surfaces, it was written ” Thank you Fans.” Well, this Lock-out is the actual Thank you, they really meant. ”We will lock-out the players again, and you will comeback again. ” In Plain good old english, it meant and means ”Thank You Suckers.” It’s brutal, but it’s the truth.