Now in its fifth year since the lost 2004-05 season, the NHL is dramatically different and more successful than it was just a half decade ago.But the movers and shakers that have reshaped the NHL over the last few years face another work stoppage in 2012 as many of the solutions from the last lockout haven’t produced satisfactory results.
There’s no doubt that another lockout would deal significant damage to the niche league, which has struggled to expand its influence despite a wave of marketable stars, resurgent franchises, and more fan-friendly rules. Any momentum the NHL has picked up in recent years would be in danger of vanishing if there’s another work stoppage.
So who has the power to save the NHL?
Commissioner Bettman is loathed by NHL fans (there's a FireBettman.com for a reason) primarily because he has been at the centre of two lockouts, including an entire season without hockey in 2004-05. Sure he's been instrumental in the growth of the NHL with six new teams entering the league during his reign, and revenues increasing from $400 million to around $3 billion in 2009. But most pundits are in agreement now that over-expansion did more to hurt the game than help it. Many fans are also critical of Bettman for making drastic changes to the NHL designed to acquire new fans while alienating the many die hards that value the integrity of the game. Either way, Bettman is probably the one man that can stop a lockout from happening in two years ... or be the one to ensure that we miss hockey again.
After following Bob Goodenow through the 2004 lockout, a decision regretted by many NHL players, the NHLPA has turned to Donald Fehr to lead them against the NHL owners. Though he hasn't officially been appointed executive director by the NHLPA just yet, Fehr has a strong reputation among athletes and was known as a fierce negotiator when he was the executive director of the MLBPA. He left that post a year ago but helped navigate the union through the 1994 MLB lockout and World Series cancellation. In the end he helped professional baseball players earn more money than ever before. Unfortunately for fans, many people around baseball feel that Fehr was the driving force behind the baseball lockout and wouldn't hesitate to guide another work stoppage in order to get his way.
The NHL could have been Irreparably crippled as a result of its lockout earlier this decade but young, marketable superstars like Crosby were essential to the league's revival. The uber-talented Penguin comes with a squeaky clean image and is pivotal to the NHL's success and chances of expanding its influence. He is the one hockey player that has the endorsement deals and sponsorships that come close to rivaling those belonging to the superstars of the three other major sports leagues. Crosby won't have a seat at the negotiating table, but if the league wants any chance at earning the attention of sports fans around the world, it can't afford to erase any of his prime years.
Daly is less of a lightning rod for public criticism than Bettman, but will be as influential on the negotiating floor as anyone. He was the league's chief negotiator during the 2004 lockout and has a strong legal background. Daly is also adept at handling the media and has been Bettman's mouthpiece on many occasions. He has been at the forefront of many of the NHL's recent issues like the Ilya Kovalchuk contract debacle this summer and has a stronger appearance and presence than the frail-looking Bettman. Additionally, Bettman holds Daly's opinions in high regard, and he is one of the few people the commissioner fully trusts.
Shanahan was central to the on-ice re-design of the game in 2004 and earned respect from his peers on both sides of the bargaining table for revitalizing the then-un-fan-friendly game. He retired in 2009 a first-ballot Hall of Famer and is now the NHL vice president of hockey and business operations. Shanahan is on the league's side now, but he knows the plight of the players all too well. Shanahan is not opposed to changes but he is one of hockey's fiercest guardians and holds the game very close to his heart. If anyone will have fair perspective on both sides of the economic issues facing the players and league it will be him.
The outspoken GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs may not be directly involved in negotiations between the owners and players, but his impact will be felt nevertheless. Not only is he the decision-maker for one of the league's most important (and richest) teams, but Burke has experience in the NHL front office and with several different franchises, giving him more insight than most. Burke has never been shy about critiquing the demands of those that he considers overly greedy and is probably the most media-friendly executive in the NHL. He can appear smug at times, but Burke's openness gives fans more access than they've had before and he is beloved in the hockey community as a result.
Ovechkin represents the change from the physical, defence-first style of the old NHL to the flashier, faster style of the new offence-oriented NHL. Ovie is the LeBron James of hockey; highlights of No. 8 are why hockey fans tune into SportsCenter. His success is all the proof the league needs to validate the success of its rule changes. Ovechkin is also one of a handful of crucial international ambassadors for the game, particularly with next Winter Olympics taking place in his home country, Russia. While several NHL stars have been lured to European leagues over the last few years, most of the young mega-stars are still in the NHL. The league has ramped up its efforts to gain foreign fans recently, and no one is more important to that effort than Ovechkin. Along with Crosby, Ovechkin gives the NHL two extremely marketable stars.
Meehan represents dozens of NHL clients and will be attempting to make sure that their salaries go untouched. Some NHLPA members, Chris Chelios in particular, were critical of Meehan after the last lockout when they alleged that he undercut the players' union and agreed to terms to settle the lockout that included a roll-back in player salaries. Players begrudgingly accepted the decrease in pay, but it was a bitter pill to swallow. Some of the economic principles of the last lockout have worked out well, and some have not. But it will be up to men like Meehan to ensure that the players' wallets don't take another significant hit.
Gretzky is not currently directly involved with the NHL, but his influence is still undeniable. Gretzky left his coaching position with the Phoenix Coyotes last September in the middle of ownership turmoil and bankruptcy for the team. Still, his opinion is universally respected in the hockey community. His word is gospel throughout Canada and even around the world the value of his words are second-to-none. Many expect that Gretzky will make a return to the NHL in some capacity sooner than later, and if that's the case, he will be monitoring the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations very closely over the next couple of years.
Campbell is an NHL-lifer and has been a player, coach, and league executive. During the 2004 lockout he oversaw a committee that implemented many of the rule changes crucial to the game's recent success. In recent years he has been the league's disciplinary officer and has dealt with several high profile incidents during his tenure at the NHL office. No stranger to dealing with controversy, Campbell works behind-the-scenes but is at the forefront of the negotiations. But, he also has unique circumstances in that his son is currently an NHL player for the Boston Bruins.
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