The 10 most powerful people in the NHL
As Sports Illustrated unveils its list of the 50 Most Powerful People in Sports, here's the list the world has truly waited for: the individuals who can stand up and shoot flaming red, radioactive galactic particles from their fingertips that determine the outcome of hockey games.
Now that would be real power, but the men listed below do all impart a certain authority on the game and its business when they speak or act. The difficulty I have is corralling them into a formal ranking. No one can accurately boil down the most powerful people in hockey to a list of 10 any more than they can choose the top 10 Bob Dylan compositions or works by Picasso. For one thing, that number is just too small. But then, I even have trouble with The Hockey News' annual ranking of 100 people of power and influence, finding it random, arbitrary and ultimately unverifiable.
Yet it's still a worthy exercise, if intellectually troubling. Not able to hold at 10, however, I ended up conveniently grouping a few co-workers together, people who have strong connections in what they do. They form power couples, so to speak. That allows my list to include 15 individuals.
I also find it very problematic to rank people as more or less powerful than others. They all carry a certain weight within their spheres of influence and specialties. So I've listed them alphabetically.
If you think I've mistakenly excluded someone who legitimately belongs on this list, you're probably right. For example, SI includes Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz (No. 3) and Colorado Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke (No. 6). I didn't include them here because while their wealth and power undoubtedly extends to other realms of sports, within the sphere of the NHL they are not as powerful as Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs (see below).
Here, then, are my hockey power picks:
These two men, who run the National Hockey League as commissioner and deputy commissioner respectively, have presided over the greatest period of growth the league has ever experienced. As we noted in our story on Bettman's 20th anniversary in office, he was given unprecedented authority as NHL CEO and, through his rugged negotiating tactics, has greatly enhanced nearly every aspect of the league's operation. (Michael Farber has written a profile of Bettman entitled "The Lord of the Lockout" in the March 11 issue of SI.) Daly has been on the job 17 years and served as Bettman's right hand since 2005. With strong people skills, Daly has assumed a greater role as the league's public voice during that time. His constant contact, discussions and relationship with NHLPA counsel Steve Fehr proved invaluable in salvaging the 2013 season. Both are bright men who put in tireless hours and are involved in every aspect of the league's operation.
These progressive-minded player agents are co-directors of the hockey division at Creative Artists Agency, which specializes in representing the game's biggest stars, including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, John Tavares and more. Brisson was a junior hockey teammate of Luc Robitaille, who was among his first clients and he occupies a key place in a circle of influential hockey executives, which includes Robitaille, Mario Lemieux and Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. Barry has been a lawyer for the NHLPA and he managed IMG's hockey department until he and IMG colleague Brisson both joined CAA, Hollywood's biggest talent agency, when that organization expanded into sports. They plan on keeping their hegemony with the game's biggest stars, already representing potential top 2013 draft picks Seth Jones and Nathan MacKinnon.
The league's chief operating officer and head of the NHL Enterprises marketing arm since 2008, Collins came over from the NFL and has become the most effective corporate salesman in league history. In the first two years alone, league advertising and sponsorships rose 66 percent. He is credited with bringing the Winter Classic (the brainchild of NBC Sports execs Jon Miller and Sam Flood) to life and forging the deal with HBO for the 24/7 series that leads up to the annual outdoor game. Under Collins, the league expanded its digital presence through Game Center Live and launched its entrance into social media. Many expected the NHL brand would suffer due to the recent lockout and the fact that it seems to have not is, in no small measure, due to his leadership on the business front.
Yes, he's considered the game's top player, but many who held that role before have been reluctant to make the best use of the platform and speak out on issues. But, as a result of his own experiences, Crosby's various statements on concussions and dangerous play have given credibility to hockey's efforts to curb head checking. He was also quite visible in his support of the NHLPA prior to and during the lockout, helping to maintain player solidarity behind the union's leadership. While his early December attempts (with Mario Lemieux, Ron Burkle and Pat Brisson) to pull together the direct owners-players meeting without the lead negotiators did not immediately lead to a settlement, it did move the sides closer and help set the stage for the new CBA agreement a month later.
They may not be Richards, Mahvolichs, Espositos, Sutters or Staals but no brothers are more powerful in hockey today. There is no way to overstate the mess that was the NHLPA by the end of the 2004-05 lockout, but the players were wise enough to seek out the best in the business and convince him to come out of retirement. It mattered little that Don Fehr had scant knowledge of the game on the ice; the PA's new executive director understood the game off the ice as well as anyone ever has. Through his organizational skills and negotiating expertise, he not only returned stability to the union, but led the players through the recent lockout, holding on to most of the contractual rights that ownership had sought to claw back and limiting the damage to their paychecks. His younger brother Steve, hired as a special counsel to the union (a similar position to the one he had at the MLBPA when Don was executive director there), kept the lines of communication open with Bill Daly even during the lockout's darkest days. Like Daly, Steve Fehr was a major figure at the negotiating table and communicator to the media. He recently said he would not succeed his brother when Don steps down, but the fact that it has even been rumored reveals the extent of his influence.
The executive producer of NBC Sports, Flood is a former captain of the Williams College hockey team and his innovative approach to televising the NHL not only contributed to developing the Winter Classic, it also created the between-benches "Inside the Glass" position (first for Pierre McGuire and now copied everywhere), interviews with coaches on the bench during commercial breaks, programming like Hockey Day in America and, most recently, Rivalry Wednesdays. Flood also selects the on-air talent for the NBC and NBC Sports Net telecasts. If there was any initial resistance from hockey's tradition-bound practices to Flood's novel ideas, they've long since evaporated. The result is the most informative and intelligent in-arena hockey telecast ever seen on U.S. television, and the record ratings indicate that viewers approve of the job Flood has done.
As chairman of the NHL Board of Governors, Jacobs' voice is the single most powerful among the team owners and, in conjunction with Gary Bettman, he sets the agenda and shapes the policies the league takes in all areas germane to the game's business. He has a lot of institutional memory, as only the Flyers' Ed Snider has been around longer as an individual in ownership (although Chicago's Wirtz family and Montreal's Molson family go back further). In addition to his stake in the Bruins and related properties, Jacobs also owns Delaware North, the global food service company that controls the concession rights for at least a half dozen other NHL clubs, so his perspective -- and financial tentacles -- extend beyond the B's. When questioned prior to the start of the season about his prominent leadership during the lockout, he replied that he didn't do it for the Bruins, who didn't stand to benefit from the stoppage, but he played that role for the greater good of the league.
Since beginning in 1981, Meehan has grown Newport Sports into the largest hockey player agency in North America. Morris joined Meehan in 1986 and, with over 125 players, no other agency is close in terms of the number of clients that they represent. With three offices in Canada and others in the U.S., Sweden, Finland and Russia, plus a staff of agents, contract experts and marketing specialists who help gather endorsements, the reach of Meehan and Morris in the world of hockey is profound. They've had more than their share of stars in their stable, including Nick Lidstrom, Pat LaFontaine and Al MacInnis, and currently boast Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Henrik Lundqvist and P.K. Subban among their high-marquee players. Meehan, a confidante of many NHL decision makers, focuses on current players while Morris specializes in recruiting junior and collegiate players to keep the pipeline flowing.
No Canadian network televises more hockey than TSN and nobody anywhere surpasses the quality of its on-air presentation -- both game coverage and special programming. It all falls under the aegis of Milliere, TSN's senior vice president of production. He's the guiding force behind the excellent NHL on TSN, plus the extensive annual coverage of the NHL Entry Draft, Trade Deadline specials, Free Agent Frenzy and the thrilling IIHF World Junior Championship, all of which grab millions of viewers. The greatest strength of these programs is the thoughtful commentary by a huge array of announcers, both in arena and in studio and, among them, none is as influential as McKenzie, who helped create the trade deadline and free agent programs. No media personality is more plugged in to hockey's decision makers and he presents the news and his views with a winning mixture of dispassion and an overriding concern for the good of the game. And with almost half a million Twitter followers, it's senseless to re-Tweet anything he posts -- everyone has already seen it.
By definition, anyone with the authority to keep players off the ice due to rule violations has considerable power. As Vice President of Player Safety, Shanahan has wielded that power in surprising new ways. Critics claim that his punishments can be too soft, especially because he started his tenure with some harsh rulings. The clubs insisted that his punishments be less severe, but even though he scaled back, Shanahan's decisions remain a step up from Colin Campbell's and they've made the formerly popular NHL star winger no more popular than any of his disciplinary predecessors. Heading up player punishment is probably the most thankless job in hockey, and no one ever seems happy with the outcome. But Shanahan has brought the process into the open with groundbreaking video explanations of his rulings that have educated everyone -- players, coaches, managers, fans and the media -- on what is and what is not acceptable behavior on the ice.
Again, if you think others belong on this list, by all means weigh in.