The NHL is not the only sports league with struggling franchises by any means, but Gary Bettman seems hell-bound and determined to make them the league with the most unique method of dealing with those franchises. Already the owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, who they may or may not be selling to Jerry Reinsdorf this summer, the NHL might also be temporarily taking over the New Jersey Devils as well.
Team owner Jeff Vanderbeek, despite owning one of the top franchises in the league, has been losing massive amounts of money for various reasons on the Devils. He's been late paying on the team's $77 million in debt, and to help resolve that he states that he's close to finding another investor to help him take on the team. Devils fans have no reason to doubt Vanderbeek's intentions nor desire to get another investor; however, in the sluggish economy the league has decided it's better safe than sorry, especially since Vanderbeek's been having financial problems for the entire season. They're working on a back-up plan, according to the New York Post: they're going to take the team over.
Despite public statements espousing confidence that a new investor will be found, commissioner Gary Bettman's office has been putting their failsafe into action quietly. Sources are saying he'll be giving Vanderbeek a few more weeks, but not until the August 14th deadline that the banks have given the owner, before the league boots Vanderbeek aside and runs the team a la Phoenix until a new owner can be found. Chances are that will take less time than the three years that the league has been fighting to keep the Coyotes in Glendale.
The whole situation raises two questions: first, would this same senario have happened to the St. Louis Blues? Dave Checketts and his ownership group were in the exact same spot as Vanderbeek. If the sale (at a discounted price) to current owner and former minority owner Tom Stillman had not gone through, would the league also be running St. Louis?
Question number two comes back to the league's actions with the Atlanta Thrashers. They were fairly adamant that they did not want to run two franchises, and now with Phoenix and New Jersey, it looks as though the league will be doing the same thing even if for a short amount of time. Atlanta wasn't an established market like New Jersey is, and the franchise didn't have a smidge of the success that the Devils have had. Stanley Cup winners do take priority over expansion teams. On top of that, the Thrashers had a nightmare of an ownership group and the league had a buyer standing there with a $60 million relocation fee in his hand. The situation's different, but for fans of teams who haven't been given multiple chances before relocating, Bettman's actions must still be frustrating.
It's still frustrating to see Bettman give up so quickly on one market while he does whatever possible to take care of others. Will the next stop be stepping in to fix the mess on Long Island? Will he have to re-fix the mess in Phoenix if the Coyotes stay put? The weak economy is certainly giving the commissioner a chance to demonstrate his unique brand of hockey Darwinism.
This is one of those times where I think we as fans get an unintentional peek behind the curtain. Well, maybe not quite so unintentional in this case, but we can infer some things from this, and we're not going to like them. (Before anybody reads this and then goes on to try to bash me as somehow pro-owner or anti-player, let me say a few things parenthetically: The players have plenty of beefs as well, not the least of which is the way on-ice refereeing and off-ice supplemental discipline are handled. They should also have plenty of good will with the fans, regarding many of the concessions they made last time around in hopes of getting the league going in the right direction. Still, as a fan of a team in the Blues that has seen all of these issues come rushing forward post-lockout, and who wants to see his team remain in its home since the '67 expansion, I understand that monetarily, something is going to have to give. If you want to argue that point, I'm certainly game.)
The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement as currently constituted is not working well for the majority of teams in the league. Unfortunately, not every team can be Toronto, with a fanbase so rabid that they'll pay extremely high ticket prices, or even top five prices in the league. Similarly, not every team can be based in a major media market like LA, garnering significant revenue on their TV (and probably radio, the next time it comes up for renewal) deals. And not all teams can have owners with nearly-unlimited pockets, able to simply absorb the losses necessary to field a near-the-cap competitive team year in and year out. (Granted, that last one has been proved, and not just in hockey, not to work all the time. See the Rangers woes in the not-so-distant past, or the current iteration of the Sabres, just to name a couple of hockey examples.) The fact that there could even be talk about the league taking over and possibly moving a storied franchise like the Devils, a team that made a run to the Cup Finals this past season, says to me that the league, as constituted currently, is not survivable for many, perhaps even most, of its teams.
Club owners are, generally, businessmen. They can look at the numbers (which we usually don't get to, at least, not in detail), and know that 15 or 20 teams will not be able to survive long-term in the league. Knowing this, they already tried once, in 2004, to get team costs under control, for the good of the league. But some funny things happened on the way to the then-new CBA.
1) They did the math wrong. Well, not all wrong. It worked out fine in the beginning, but the sliding scale they used scaled up much too sharply for small-to-mid market teams.
2) They did the math wrong. In addition to the above, the owners eventually settled on 57% being the players cut of revenues. They were already locked out then, and maybe that looked better than the possibility of a second no season, but now the issue is up for debate again, as five years later, costs are out of control again, to the point that we get stories like Phoenix, St. Louis, and now, potentially, New Jersey. (Working from the league revenue number of 3.6B, what's the difference between 57% and 50% to the players, you ask? 252M, or roughly five cap floor teams, or nearly four cap ceiling teams. Looked at in reverse, it's about 8M per team.)
3) They refused to take a page from the NFL's book on revenue sharing. Granted, the top handful of team owners in the league are not going to want to go for this, because, as things stand right now, they're sitting pretty. The question is more, will the bottom 20 or 25 teams in the league force it on them, for the good of the league, to help stop situations like we've seen these past few years with teams moving, in danger of moving, or changing ownership groups every few years as a new owner comes to realize that there's almost no way to actually make money, or in some cases break even, running an NHL franchise.
Add all that together, plus the legitimate grievances and desires of the players, and we've got a recipe for another lockout. Then add Donald Fehr to the list, just for spice. And while these things need to change for the good of the league, the fact of the matter is, if the league shuts down again for the second time in a decade, we may as well get ready to wave goodbye to a bunch of teams.
@hildymac sure once they sell the yotes uncle gary won't have anything to do this summer *cough* soon to be players strike
@catols If they strike, and if Phoenix re-locates, he needs to be gone. He needs to be gone regardless, but still...