When John Collins joined the NHL in 2007, I use to joke with him that there were really only 48 people in the game that mattered, and if he was lucky we could make it 49.
Years passed, and Collins jumped up the list to be one of the key power brokers in the game. He was certainly in the top five, but his recent departure now begs a few questions:
Where is the power in the game?
How much has it changed?
Who will fill the void?
Or, does it really change that much?
Let the debate begin...
1. Gary Bettman
There is little doubt that Bettman is in charge of the game. He has learned to deftly manage the owners, and has a very tight circle of loyal employees that do the day-to-day work of the NHL. Let’s remember the game has survived and thrived three extended labour stoppages in his time as commissioner, and returned with a flourish.
The trust that most owners have in him is beyond description. In many ways, he is viewed as the 31st owner. The fact that John Collins’ direct subordinates all now report into the commissioner is a simple message, both internally and externally, that he wants to be responsible for the growth of the game as it enters the centennial year.
2. Jeremy Jacobs
As the senior owner and chairman of the league’s board of governors, Jacobs’ unwavering support for Bettman has been mutually beneficial for both men. When league messaging requires a voice other than that of the commissioner, it’s Jacobs who is first up. Particularly when the news isn’t as fan friendly as it could be (just read his interview suggesting Quebec might not be the best place for an expansion team).
When the over aggressive plan of outdoor games wasn’t turning the profit the league required, it was the heavy hand of Jacobs that cut down the amount of Stadium Series sites. And, oh yeah, Jacobs’ food and beverage company runs those services in six NHL arenas.
3. Bill Daly
I think it’s fair to say, we all know the relationship between Gary Bettman and Daly. Bill is certainly one-half of the two-man circle that interprets and executes any plan to run the NHL. His role in collective bargaining, expansion, international growth, player safety and league governance is not to be questioned. He is part of setting the league’s agenda, and executing the plan. Daly’s strength is his perceived good guy approach which is very different from the commissioner’s image.
4. Mathieu Schneider
The former player has become the key hockey voice at the NHL Players’ Association. Key attributes of the latest CBA such as mandatory days off, extra time off around Christmas and the five-day break for teams around the all-star game are all Schneider’s ideas.
When rule changes and equipment modifications were made, the players’ loudest voice was from him. It appears that the structure of the NHLPA has empowered Schneider to be vocal, proactive and protective. He has become the key voice in protecting the game and players’ rights, outside the league office.
5. Don Fehr
As Schneider’s influence grows, Donald Fehr appears to settling into a maintenance role. Almost a consultant, rather than executive director of the players’ union, preparing for a negotiation. Fehr’s biggest challenge in the years to come will be to find a suitable replacement. As Marvin Miller was to Fehr in baseball, Fehr must now find his own replacement at the NHLPA.
6. Colin Campbell
Many think that Colin Campbell’s role at the league is winding down. If that is indeed the case, the NHL will lose its hockey conscience. He is always inclusive in his decision making process. His “aw shucks” low-key style is contradicted by his complex philosophy of how to grow the game, without compromising the old fashioned beliefs of hockey purists.
Campbell’s vision and execution on video review has made the NHL video room the envy of all professional leagues on the continent.
7. Murray Edwards
For decades, Gary Bettman’s top Canadian owner/loyalist was the late Harley Hotchkiss in Calgary. Now, current Flames owner Edwards is quickly becoming the commissioner’s go-to guy north of the 49th parallel. Edwards now sits on the executive committee, and was front and centre on many meetings during the 2012-13 labour dispute. He is known for his photographic memory and ability to make decisive and dramatic decisions.
8. Ted Leonsis
The Washington Capitals’ owner understands the digital world better than any NHL owner. He acknowledged that coverage of his team and the NHL could come from more than the mainstream media, hence bloggers in Washington were the first group to receive accreditation to cover the game.
As the NHL grows digitally, know that the former AOL executive is not far from the action of growing the game. His monumental sports network might just be the blueprint for online sports networks and sports content in the league. He’s one of those owners on Bettman’s call list when the commissioner needs an opinion or soothing voice.
9. Mike Babcock
Team Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs and a legacy contract that might be the key to giving every NHL head coach more money: that’s what Mike Babcock stands for. At the helm of the Chicago Cubs of hockey, his challenge of a rebuild is monumental. When he says it’s a long and arduous task, advertisers stay away. When he makes off-the-cuff suggestions about bigger nets, it makes the managers’ meeting agenda.
Babcock knows his role in the game very well. Highest paid coach in the centre of the hockey universe, full of buzzwords and a coaching agenda that shouldn’t be overlooked.
10. John McDonough
When John McDonough took over the Blackhawks, he knew exactly what to do to reignite the fire in hockey’s most malnourished market. The same magic that made the Cubs lovable could make the hawks lovable. Local TV, annual conventions and embracing history were key to the team’s resurgence. Sure winning helps, but it was McDonough who put Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville in place. And he has created a marketing and business plan that has put a blackhawk t-shirt or sweater on thousands of fans.
Re-engaging fans in Chicago has made the team the most important U.S.-based franchise in the NHL. McDonough’s fingerprints are all over that plan. Some suggest Rocky Wirtz should be here too; just remember Wirtz’s single greatest act as owner was to hire McDonough.
11. Stephen Walkom
When you see the officials huddle around the small 4K monitor looking for goalie interference or an offside on coach’s challenges, know that it was Walkom’s adamant opinion that forced the league to invest millions in technology to keep the final decision on the ice.
Walkom’s officiating style is evident in many of the young officials in the league, and it’s his vision that has seen both a Russian and a Swede officiate NHL games. He has been able to do a great deal of team building among the officials, creating a great deal of pride and honour among the most criticized group in any arena.
12. Connor McDavid
There is little doubt that the teenager has become a force in the NHL, despite being derailed after just 13 games. The lottery, the draft and the season premiere have made McDavid the most sought-after player in decades. Comparisons to Crosby, Lemieux and Gretzky are natural.
What isn’t natural is his on ice-savvy, intelligence, puck sense and will to win. He will quickly become the face of a franchise and a whole league. Sponsors are already lining up to use his name for their products. He is certain to be an athlete that transcends the NHL and creates recognition beyond the hardcore hockey fan.
13. Rene Fasel
Dr. Fasel runs the International Ice Hockey Federation. He is an IOC vice president. He still has a great deal of sway in Europe as the NHL tries to grow its footprint there. And as the world points to South Korea and China for the next two Olympic Winter Games, Fasel’s role in bridging the gap between the NHL and the IOC is key. Trying to get the struggling KHL, the NHL and all the European federations to have a similar agenda is always a challenge.
The World Hockey Championships has flourished in many countries under Fasel’s guidance. While the NHL and the players’ union are driving much of the agenda for the World Cup of Hockey, Fasel will be front and centre in Toronto next September promoting hockey as a global game.
14. Jaromir Jagr
The NHL’s oldest player continues to raise eyebrows in the hockey community. His dedication to the game and training methods have become the stories of legend. Teams have had to give him keys to the arena to open early or lock-up at night, as he wants to practice and train during the season.
Leading by example, Jagr has inspired the great young core of the Panthers as they try to establish South Florida as a hockey market. All the while, Jagr has infused millions into the game of hockey in his homeland of the Czech Republic, keeping his former club team Kladno afloat financially.
15. Kay Whitmore and Cory Schneider
This duo is the driving force in downsizing goaltenders’ equipment, which will (hopefully) increase scoring without creating more injuries among the puck stoppers. The fact that one of the two is an active player makes change a real possibility. And the fact that Whitmore is himself a former goalie will deter much of the criticism from those who will claim these changes aren’t in the best interest of the game.
16. Sidney Crosby
Perhaps Crosby’s star will rise again, but make no mistake; the pulse of hockey is sometimes connected to Crosby’s stats. If Sid isn’t playing well and Sid isn’t happy, every Penguins fan feels it. There is a generation of players that he has inspired in both Canada and the United States. Certainly the face of a franchise, and at times the face of a nation, Crosby always handles adversity professionally and calmly. He is as comfortable in a media scrum as he is in the faceoff circle. To such an extent, even the most negative of pundits have a difficult time criticizing him.
17. Jeff Vinik
When Gary Bettman wined and dined the minority owner of the Boston Red Sox to buy the Tampa Bay Lightning, little did he know that Jeff Vinik’s approach to hockey ownership was going to be the blueprint for many owners to come. Completely immersed in building the brand, community relations and real estate development, Vinik’s Lightning success off the ice is only outmatched by their play on the ice.
While many often talk about the potential of a pro sports team’s effect on a downtown area, Vinik actually created that halo effect in downtown Tampa with hotels and entertainment options.
18. Bob Nicholson
The former head of Hockey Canada still maintains a vice presidential role in the IIHF. His ability to create consensus at the international level is now at full use as he heads the Oilers Entertainment Group. Darryl Katz’s desire to rebuild and grow the Edmonton Oilers had been struggling for years, until he was able to convince Nicholson to join his company.
After less than a year of study, Nicholson reorganized the company and lured Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan to run the hockey operation, all the while guiding OEG through the development of the new arena in Edmonton, and the adjacent ice district. Carrying both NHL and IIHF clout make Nicholson one of those few people in the game that can truly navigate and influence the game anywhere in the world.
19. Ken Holland
The father of 3-on-3 is the consummate thinker of the game. Always trying to query people how to make the game better, and never afraid of a contrary opinion, makes Holland one of the most approachable people in the game. His legacy in Detroit is the continuity he has been able to create both on and off the ice. The team’s legacy of consecutive playoff appearances has continued under Holland, as he and his staff espouse “The Red Wing Way.”
Build through the draft, learn the system in Grand Rapids and graduate to the Joe as a mature, fully developed hockey player is what Holland believes in. His understanding of the complexity of the cap, and how to work around it, has made Holland a key contact for anyone trying to understand what the modern game requires for success.
While no one will ever doubt his competitive spirit, his common sense approach to the Wings and genuine desire to help the NHL as a whole, make Holland the most beloved manager in the game.
20. Don Renzulli
If John Collins dreamt it, Don Renzulli built it! Renzulli is the lynchpin to all of the NHL’s tent-pole events. Events such as the Winter Classic, Heritage Classic, All-Star Weekend and NHL Draft have his fingerprints all over them. He came from the NFL and its ‘think big’ mentality and has brought it to hockey. His work ethic is relentless, as is his attention to detail.
With Collins’ departure, Don’s institutional knowledge of the big events has become even more valuable. He has been able to do for hockey what many of his predecessors were unable to do to. He can create flawless in-stadium experiences and memories for owners, players, fans and business partners.
21. Bobby Orr
The first of Agents’ Row. Orr’s profile in the game is certainly not as high as it was when he played, but his influence in the business is very strong. The growing list of players that call the Orr Group their agents is impressive, including McDavid and Taylor Hall.
People like Rick Curran have established the Orr brand as an aggressive and influential agency for teenagers to veterans on the downswing. And while Bobby is not on the frontline much, his words, wisdom and opinions are heard loud and clear throughout the game.
22. Pat Brisson
When one of your best friends is Mario Lemieux, and one of your biggest clients is Sidney Crosby, you have a voice in the game. Brisson and his CAA cohorts like J.P. Barry are on a real roll right now. Crosby, Toews and Kane are in the fold, as are the Sedin twins and Dougie Hamilton. When veteran players like Martin Brodeur needed help, it was Brisson who broached the deal in St. Louis.
I can still remember Brisson sneaking through the halls of a New York hotel, trying to make the best of an opportunity, working among his contacts to help end the lockout in December of 2012.
23. Don Meehan
Meehan’s Newport Sports maintains representation of more than 100 NHL players. It has always been Meehan’s ability to negotiate both publicly and privately that has put him above the rest. Along with his key cohorts, Pat Morris, Wade Arnott, Craig Oster and Mark Guy they are able to generate an aura of creditability and confidence for their clients. Who can forget the pilgrimages NHL teams went on to the suburban Toronto offices of Newport to bid on Brad Richards and Justin Schultz.
Meehan is an artful negotiator, and has passed his wisdom on to his partners. The biggest client coming of age is Steven Stamkos who will be on the auction block next July, as an unrestricted free agent.
24. Steve Hatze Petros
The legendary schedule maker. He’s the one who has survived decades at the NHL while new executives are parachuted into the league office with new ideas and wild concepts. Hatze Petros survives every regime to manage each of the TV networks and the member clubs, who never like the makeup of their schedule, but feel Steve treats them special.
He is a master negotiator both inside and outside the office. He also has dual capacity at the centre of any league analysis of expansion.
25. Trevor Linden and Brendan Shanahan
Two former players, both involved in CBA discussion at a certain point of their playing careers, now intrinsically involved in re-growing and rebranding the two largest English-language teams in Canada. Linden’s image in Vancouver has bought the Canucks a couple of years of fan loyalty as the team retools from the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
Expectations are high in the Lower Mainland, and Linden’s calm effect on the market could only be described as priceless. With Shanahan, the Maple Leafs are in complete rebuilding mode. He has worked quite quickly to renovate the team’s front office. His discretion is remarkable and his camera presence is fantastic.
The Watch List:
1. Auston Matthews The prospective No. 1 pick in 2016, who is playing in Switzerland this season, will have a dramatic effect on the team that wins the lottery.
2. Sean MacLeod The NHL’s resident capologist. It’s his algorithm that calculates the daily cap for every team. Still have yet to decide if he’s a great numbers man with a hockey background or vice versa.
3. Steve Yzerman Tampa Bay general manager and Team Canada's gold medal architect. You have to wonder, in the long term, will he become an even greater administrator than he was an NHL player?
4. Tom Gaglardi The owner of the Dallas Stars. He has assembled a fantastic hockey front office with Jim Lites and Jim Nill in the lead, giving them enough cash to rebuild a once bankrupt team. The Stars are a team and business making a huge difference in Texas.
5. Steve McArdle Maybe the brightest young light in Gary Bettman’s executive team. Steve’s first challenge was to analyze the inner workings of the NHL office before becoming the league’s top strategic planner. He was recognized by Sports Business Journal as one of the Top 40 under 40 last year. If he wants, he can rise to lofty heights within the NHL office.
6. Jeff Jackson He represents McDavid, as part of the Orr Group. The former NHLer, and former team exec, has turned his law degree and his knowledge of playing this game at an elite level, into a strength that few other agents have had.
7. Mike Cammalleri The long time forward has become a huge advocate within the walls of the competition committee. There are those on both the league and players’ sides who are impressed with his passion, knowledge and desire to better the game. As his lengthy career comes to an end, are we getting glimpses of a future manager or coach?
8. Bob Bowman A baseball guy on a hockey list! He's the head of MLB Baseball Advanced Media, which now controls NHL.com and the NHL Network. Will he be able to digitally enhance hockey the way he and his people have done so with baseball?
9. Allan Walsh No other agent has grasped the social media world better than Allan. His clients are loyal and his opinions reflect a confidence of his player-first mentality. What you see, is what you get with Allan.
10. Stephanie Vail No person on social media publishes more highlights and stories on a regular basis than Stephanie does on her twitter feed @myregularface. She is now creating content for NHL teams and for her lengthy list of followers.