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.