For nearly a decade, John Collins was always the answer to a simple question: Who is the most important person in hockey the average fan hasn’t heard of?
If that changed in recent years, it’s only because the NHL’s chief operating officer gained a little bit of profile while overseeing the creation of the Winter Classic, the “24/7” all-access TV series, a revamped World Cup and a dozen or so other significant league-initiated ventures.
Still, news of his sudden departure didn’t create screaming headlines on Tuesday night. The decision, however, leaves a massive hole in the industry. It will probably be a long while before it is patched over.
Collins was a progressive voice inside an organization that has been decidedly conservative for nearly 100 years. He arrived from the NFL and proved to be a force of nature, continually pushing the NHL outside its comfort zone while making a lot of money for a lot of people.
Over nine years he established a standard his successor shouldn’t even be measured against. It’s hard to imagine anyone having the kind of impact on the NHL that Collins did.
One former colleague called him “a true maverick,” while another said, “Too bad, sorry to see him go. He was good for the sport.”
“John leaves a lasting mark,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “His energy, creativity and skill at building strategic partnerships helped drive significant revenue growth for our league.”
Those close to Collins say it was simply time for a change and believe his next venture involves a startup company that will operate in the sports industry. Reached by Sportsnet, Collins indicated that a formal announcement regarding his future plans is expected on Monday.
The 52-year-old had a number of opportunities to leave the NHL over the years, most recently receiving significant interest from Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment to replace Tim Leiweke as CEO.
After turning the NHL into a $4-billion business, it’s little wonder why.
Collins created the annual Jan. 1 Winter Classic outdoor game that makes a bigger impact in the U.S. than any other event on the NHL calendar. He pushed for the all-access series that started on HBO and later moved to EPIX, and would gladly have seen one of those created during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
He was heavily involved in the most recent round of national TV negotiations on both sides of the border, and oversaw the six-year digital rights contract that will soon see MLB Advance Media take control of the NHL Network, NHL.com, and other properties.
“We did the U.S. media deal, we did the Canadian media deal, and now people think we’re going to settle back down into a more traditional rate of growth — four to five per cent,” Collins told NHL.com in August. “I don’t see it that way, and I know the commissioner doesn’t see it that way. I think that all these are building blocks that are elevating the brand, elevating the business, and give us a bigger platform to build the sport.”
With Collins, it was forever on to the next thing; a never-ending quest to reach a larger summit. “We have one popular outdoor game? Why not make it four, and let’s go to Dodger Stadium while we’re at it.”
He routinely spoke of scale and dreamed up large events and wanted to see the NHL treated as something more than North America’s fourth most important sports league. He was excited to help bring back the World Cup of Hockey in September, and saw long-reaching opportunities in Europe and China that may never be fully realized depending on who is chosen to replace him.
For now, a number of department heads who had been reporting to Collins will be overseen by Bettman on an interim basis. Folks in marketing and events and global partnerships, among others.
Some of the details of the transition are still being ironed out, but for all intents and purposes, Collins has already moved on. He joined the NHL in 2006, became COO in 2008 and credits Bettman for granting him a lot of space to operate with.
“He had a vision for extending the reach of the NHL and supported us completely as we set out to make the game as big as it deserves to be,” said Collins. “The NHL’s future is filled with promise and potential and I will admire and cheer the league’s successes to come on the global stage.”
The game is a little smaller without him in it — at least right now.
Collins may not have been the biggest name in the industry, but no one cast a bigger shadow. He will be missed.