How will Connor McDavid's second contract alter the balance of power in the NHL? John Shannon answers that question—and many more—in his second annual list of the NHL's top 25 power brokers.

This is Year Two of the Power 25.  Some new faces have made this list, people with the potential to change the path of a team, the NHL or the game of hockey itself. There is no formula used to build this ranking, because there are no analytics that can fully capture a person’s impact on the game. These people are all dynamic personalities who somehow touch hockey, albeit in different ways.   

Trust me when I tell you there are certainly more than 25 power brokers in the game. Not being chosen for this list is not meant as a slight—although some will see it that way. And, of course, there are a few omissions, like Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz (though his influence is present), or Brian Cooper, the Toronto-based marketing guru whose handiwork is seen and heard at almost every puck drop. But this list does give you a glimpse of how hockey is run and the people that chart its course. Read, digest, argue and enjoy.

The man at the top of the list last year stays there this time around. Without a doubt, Bettman’s control of the world’s best professional hockey league remains intact. And there’s no better example of it than the debate over NHLers playing at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Bettman continues to manage relations with all 31 owners very well. The trust the Board of Governors has for him is exceptional. He always seems to make good on his promises to that group. But as one insider told me, it is easy to manage the group when you set the agenda and then execute it. Bettman’s introduction of Bill Foley and his Vegas Golden Knights to the owners’ club, and his ability to manage the expectations in Quebec City are testimonies to his diplomacy and shrewd acumen. He has taken a very hands-on approach with the NHL’s centennial plans, including major events in Montreal and Ottawa next November and December. And he has revitalized the league’s global brand—with or without the Olympics.

The executive director of the NHL Players’ Association climbed a few spots from last season thanks to his belief in growing the game internationally and supporting his players and their desire to suit up in South Korea, which sees him playing a vital role in determining the outcome of the Olympic decision. Fehr has always shown strength in his ability to negotiate, and to create and manage deadlines. In a rather interesting contradictory relationship, he can be the NHL’s best partner and worst adversary simultaneously. But Fehr makes it abundantly clear that what is best for the players is best for hockey.

Gretzky’s return to the NHL fold was one of the great stories of 2016. As ambassador for the league’s centennial, and Oilers’ vice-chairman and partner, Gretzky attended his first Governors meetings this year. And in a room filled with billionaires and big-ego CEOs, he can do something few else can: turn them into fans. Gretzky can also build the game beyond regular hockey fans. People unfamiliar with the sport have still heard of him. He is viewed by many as being on the same level as Jordan, Woods, Jeter and Manning. His voice is needed to grow the game and influence Madison Avenue, and he can do those things while still empathizing with the players—now from the owners’ side.

The mandate to grow the NHL internationally falls onto Daly’s desk. Beyond the Olympics, there are aggressive plans for expansion in Europe and Asia. It’s probably not fair to Bettman to describe Daly as the league’s “good cop” but he is seen by many as the more approachable one at the top of the NHL food chain. His friendly demeanour disguises a brilliant legal mind and he’s a tremendous problem-solver. There isn’t a single decision of Bettman’s that doesn’t filter through the deputy commissioner’s office.

The Chicago Blackhawks are now the gold standard of professional hockey franchises. United Center is full, TV ratings are strong and the on-ice product is consistently great. And while he doesn’t market, broadcast or play, the shadow that Wirtz casts in Chicago is large. Every man in the Blackhawks organization points to the leadership and vision of Wirtz as the reason for the Windy City’s hockey renaissance. And beyond the hockey team, Wirtz has taken significant steps to assist the inner-city population with the construction of a new practice facility that will double as a community centre. Wirtz has put the Blackhawks on the same pedestal as Chicago’s NFL, MLB and NBA teams.

Schneider continues to wield a great deal of player influence on the NHL landscape. You might call the mandated five-day break and four days a month off two of his key contributions to the lifestyle of the modern player. There isn’t a decision made within the NHLPA offices that Schneider isn’t involved in, from sponsorship to equipment to rules and the international game. He is truly the voice of the players at the PA, and has surrounded himself with a small group of former players—including Steve Webb, Joe Reekie, Rob Zamuner and Chris Campoli—to assist in outreach in order to strengthen communication with union members.

The ever-present Campbell just keeps chugging along as the conscience of the game. Campbell is an interesting character: While he comes across as an old-school hockey man, he is a complex thinker when it comes to the game. A protege of the late, great Roger Neilson, he has always understood how to use the rules for the good of the game. Campbell is a sounding board for Bettman and the league’s general managers, who believe he feels their pain. The video review rules and coaches’ challenges he designed have long been the envy of North America’s other pro sports. And when the league’s New York brass begin to overzealously sell every aspect of the game, Campbell will weigh-in and try to protect the product for the hardcore, conservative majority.

The owner of the Boston Bruins is now 76 years old, but his presence around the NHL’s boardroom and at TD Garden continues. He still sits as chairman of the NHL’s Executive Committee and he is a key member of the Audit and Finance Committees that keep checks and balances on the league office and its long-term planning. As chairman of Delaware North, he also wields influence throughout the North American sports environment as one of its preeminent food service companies.

No hockey player had a more successful season than Crosby: the Penguins won, Canada won, and Crosby appeared to dominate each and every game he played. In a sport where superstars only participate in the action 35 per cent of the time, Crosby was omnipresent—almost as if he heard the rumblings about Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews and decided to serve notice that he is far from being replaced as the game’s best player. Known for being demanding on his teammates, Crosby has maintained a squeaky-clean image that sponsors love and a work ethic coaches can only dream every player shared. He is at the top of his game. When Crosby speaks, everyone listens.

The future is now. The 20-year-old McDavid gave the Oilers instant credibility on the ice and in the boardroom with advertisers. While falling oil prices brought tough financial times across Alberta, McDavid’s presence in Edmonton created a bubble that fuelled national and local sponsorship for the Oilers and the franchise’s new arena project. McDavid’s abilities forced Peter Chiarelli to rethink how the Oilers should be constructed. It allowed the GM to trade Taylor Hall to fill a need on the blue line. It appears, as of this writing, that the team has a shot to return to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, with McDavid leading the push.

As the NHL’s director of officiating, Walkom has done a great job maintaining a very sound third team on the ice every night. He was the loudest advocate for involving on-ice officials in video reviews of goaltender interference and off-side calls. He is also responsible for trying to create a succession plan as some of the game’s senior referees and linesmen retire. Walkom has designed a now-annual officials’ combine to find and nurture the best young talent continent-wide. That process will eventually create a larger, better prepared pool of officials. He’s also transplanted officials from Sweden and Russia to the NHL to work.

When you see Bettman and Daly walking anywhere, there is always another New Yorker close by—the NHL’s general counsel, David Zimmerman. He spends long hours building the legal ammunition Bettman always seems to have at his fingertips. He is also a key contact for the owners, clubs and other league personnel when it comes to any legal issue. As Zimmerman has himself said, he runs a full-service law firm inside the league office. He is a trusted member of Bettman’s inner circle, and, like the commissioner, he entered the world of sports with the firm that seems to represent every pro league, Proskauer Rose. You don’t hear from Zimmerman often, but he has a strong voice and a firm hand behind closed doors.

International Olympic Committee president Bach and International Ice Hockey Federation president Fasel are not the best of friends, yet the two are brought together on hockey’s Olympic stage. Bach’s IOC runs the Games; Fasel’s IIHF runs the hockey tournament at the Games. Fasel did not support Bach for the IOC presidency, and some have speculated that has something to do with the IOC’s decision not to finance the expenses of NHL players going to South Korea. That the NHL hasn’t side-stepped Fasel to speak directly to the IOC is a testament to the league’s respect for him. As a partner on events like the World Cup, Fasel has shown he understands that the best hockey in the world is played in the NHL. He also knows that partnership with the NHL will improve the IIHF’s footprint, particularly in Asia.

With the passing of Ed Snider and resignation of Carolina’s Peter Karmanos, two spots opened up on the NHL’s Executive Committee and were filled by owners Molson (Montreal) and Chipman (Winnipeg). At opposite ends of the NHL spectrum—a big-market owner and a small-market owner—the pair add Canadian voices at the executive level, which speaks to the respect the NHL has for the home of hockey and can only mean good things for Canada. Molson has done a great job reviving the Canadiens’ aura in both languages and Chipman has been a strong advocate for Gary Bettman since the Jets returned to Winnipeg.

The Florida Panthers owner is the in-coming Secretary of the Army in Donald Trump’s cabinet, and it never hurts to have a voice in government. Viola’s appointment should have positive effects for the NHL. (Perhaps an outdoor game at West Point or on an aircraft carrier—who knows?) Viola’s private-sector success has not translated into success for his hockey team, but the restructuring the club received last season from Broward County created a level of financial stability. As for Viola’s relationship with the polarizing Trump, it’s still too early to determine if the team’s fragile fan base likes the association.

The CEO of Oilers Entertainment Group made an important decision last year: Instead of removing himself from the IIHF’s executive as expected, Nicholson ran for another term as vice-president of the Americas. The choice gave Canada—and, indirectly, the NHL—a high-profile voice on the international stage. Nicholson, whose fingerprints remain on Hockey Canada, is a voice of reason in a game where there’s always some horse trading. His ability to talk to both Rene Fasel and Gary Bettman is key to protecting Canada’s place within the IIHF, and the NHL’s relationship with the Federation.

The challenge faced by McArdle, the NHL’s chief administrative officer, is to understand the needs and wants of sponsors in both countries and acknowledge that what works in Canada may not succeed below the 49th parallel. McArdle is also part of the balancing act between respecting the NHLPA as a business partner, while finding new and creative ways to grow league revenue. He has a direct line to the commissioner’s office, which only adds to his ability to understand what the board expects and the market can withstand.

At 17, when he bypassed the CHL to play in Switzerland, Matthews created a stir throughout the NHL—giving notice that he was different than most teenage phenoms. His World Cup performance and play with the Maple Leafs has reinforced that. Matthews just might be something the Maple Leafs have never had, one of the top superstars in the NHL. He rarely does in-game interviews or gives in to media demands, and that has allowed him to focus completely on the game. He and his young teammates have restored hope in Toronto—something that’s great for the Leafs and the NHL as a whole.

Philanthropist, comedian, bon vivant and, oh yeah, Predators defenceman—Subban is truly one of the NHL’s great personalities. His charm can’t be underestimated, something the league should embrace. Certainly David Poile understood the draw when he traded for Subban. Hockey in the U.S. is growing and players like Subban, capable of inspiring new fans to try the game, can be a conduit to untapped potential.

As hockey’s version of John Madden, Davidson was the best salesman for the NHL ever to work in a broadcast booth. More recently, his demeanour, intelligence, savvy and communication skills have helped put two franchises back on the rails. In St. Louis, as the face and voice of the franchise, he hired Doug Armstrong and Ken Hitchcock. His influence can still be seen in today’s Blues, and he’s done the same in Columbus. He brought in Jarmo Kekalainen and, eventually, John Tortorella, and oversaw the rebuilding of the Jackets’ relationship with their disgruntled fans. And on top of his team responsibilities, he chairs the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee.

Orr Group agent Jeff Jackson has a huge opportunity to make his mark in the hockey world. The player-turned-front-office-exec-turned-player-rep is heavily involved with Connor McDavid, and has already proven he can bring in a great second contract for a young star (having done so for Aaron Ekblad).  On July 1, the first possible day to renew McDavid’s contract, Jackson has a chance to recalibrate the pay scale in the NHL.  Jackson’s relationship with the Oilers is excellent (as is McDavid’s), so there is no reason to think he would hold the team hostage. But business is business and players’ careers are not infinite.

The NHL’s schedule maker, Hatze Petros faced an extra challenge this year with the mandatory five-day break agreed to by the NHL and NHLPA. Hatze Petros deals with NBC, Rogers and TVA to build the complex national television schedule, and watching him design the playoff schedule on the final night of the regular season is truly amazing, as he spars with networks, 16 teams and even the commissioner.

Vaughn is an aggressive and creative force in the world of goalie equipment. His company may not be the biggest in the business, but his market share of quality NHL keepers is close to 50 per cent. It was hoped by many that Vaughn would lead the way in the design of new pants, chest protectors and pads. Instead, he and others have stood in the way of change, forcing the league to delay much of the pant reduction and bringing a complete stop to use of the new chest protector. Vaughn’s lack of agreement with the NHL is emblematic of the relationship between the league and equipment manufacturers as a whole. But it is still hoped he will assist in the long-term transformation of goalie equipment and, as one person told me, “ be a leader for once.”

The NHL’s new chief marketing officer came to the league from Pandora, and her strength in the digital space was key to the appointment.  Browning faces the challenge of being a non-hockey voice in a league that hasn’t had success reaching the non-hockey world. Her hire was a smart one but she’ll need internal buy-in to succeed, and the NHL has been down this road before. The real test is whether Browning can endure the frustration of the “that’s the way we do things” attitude in the league office.

Walsh has used social media longer and more effectively than any other agent in hockey, and fostered bonds with his clients that are second-to-none. It was Walsh who managed Jonathan Drouin through his difficult times with the Lightning. Drouin is now a key part of the Lightning offence only a year after many thought he had put his entire career in jeopardy. Walsh’s client base ranges from superstars to pluggers, and they all glow about how he has their back and makes their families feel special. He’s not afraid to take on teams and is combative on social media, questioning the league’s position on head injuries.

1.Stephane Quintal The top dog of the NHL’s player safety group, Quintal has put his own fingerprints on the league’s discipline system since replacing Brendan Shanahan.

2. Mitchell Ziets The CEO of Tipping Point Sports, Ziets is well known in pro sports as an expert in negotiating private- and public-sector arena construction.

3. Alexander Radulov The Montreal forward has re-engineered his hockey career, and his success could lead to other Russian players being wined-and-dined by the NHL.

4. Hilary Knight Players like Knight have tried their best to keep the NWHL afloat, requiring her to be as adroit off the ice, as she is on it.

5. Jeff Gorton Replacing a legend like Glen Sather isn’t easy, but Gorton’s hockey savvy has the Rangers rebuilding and winning at the same time.

6. Gary Drummond As president of hockey operations, Drummond keeps an eye on young Coyotes GM John Chayka and head coach Dave Tippett, who has say on player personnel decisions.

7. Brad Treliving The Flames GM has done a solid job managing strong-willed owners and executives, as well as his team’s young nucleus.

8. Steve Mayer Executive VP of the NHL’s programming and creative development, Mayer’s fingerprints are all over the league’s outdoor games, entertainment acts, awards shows and centennial content.

9. Scott Salmond The recent successes (and near-successes) of Hockey Canada on the ice can be attributed to the strong leadership and hockey acumen of Salmond, who should at some point this year be a candidate to join an NHL team.

10. Kurt Overhardt Players like Ryan Johansen and Jacob Trouba have put a ton of faith in agent Overhardt to chart their pro hockey careers. Viewed by many teams as overly aggressive in his demands, there is little doubt Overhardt’s clients have benefited from his approach.

Photo Credits

CP (19); NHL (4); NHLPA (2)