It would be understandable to hold the opinion that at least some of the owners in the NHL don’t actually care about what fans think about them. After all, it’s their lockout that has deprived the unwashed masses of their favorite pastime and the man they employ to run the league, Gary Bettman, has already stated that he believes fans will return because of how much they love the sport.
In a cynical way, owners shouldn’t care what fans think: You want to see the best hockey in the world? It’s my house. Buy a ticket, I’ll be in my luxury box downing popcorn and white wine.
When it comes to the negotiations, the most involved owners have been characterized as cold business men who don’t care if they’re locking out millionaire hockey players or average Joe meatpackers – there’s a union to bust and that’s what they intend to do, come hell or high water.
As fun as a narrative that is for sportswriters and think-of-the-childreners, it’s not always the case.
Because eventually, public perception does matter. Just ask Daryl Katz in Edmonton. Once seen as a white knight who could improve the Oilers thanks to his hefty wallet, the drugstore cowboy is wearing the Black Bart hat right now because of crumbling plans to get the city a new modern arena. Katz, whose money comes from pharmacy chains, is not a very public person. So when his very visible trip to Seattle went south faster than the NBA’s Supersonics, it hurt the man. Katz took out a full-page ad in the Edmonton Journal explaining how he misjudged the situation and apologizing for taking Oilers fans for granted.
As it stands now, the city of Edmonton and Katz are still locked in a financial battle about who exactly is going to pay how much for the new complex. Katz and his group blew off a city council meeting earlier this month because he didn’t think the negotiations were moving forward. It was his choice, but it was not endearing. The arena district both Katz and Oilers fans envision would certainly be a huge step for the city, but it has become clear the fans do in fact have an impact on Katz’s psyche. I can’t imagine a lack of on-ice product right now helps his case.
Katz is not alone. In Philadelphia, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation has been extra-busy since the labor strife began, making sure reporters know about the wonderful work the Flyers’ owner does to improve the lives of underprivileged kids.
They’re not wrong.
The Ed Snider Foundation is an excellent charity that helps the community; it’s just unfortunate that because of the lockout, you can’t help but think Ed Snider himself is concerned about his public image, since his name is always the second one brought up (after Boston’s Jeremy Jacobs) when people mention owners in Bettman’s inner circle. From the folks I’ve talked to, Snider isn’t even necessarily anti-player – he loves his Flyers and he loves Philly – he just hates the idea of revenue sharing since the franchise he built has been so successful.
Down in Tampa, the community has a new hero in Jeff Vinik, the mutual fund wizard who bought the Lightning two years ago and brought in an ace crew that included new GM Steve Yzerman. Vinik has been a tireless supporter of the community and has continued to honor local heroes with $50,000 awards, even though the hockey games they were to be feted at are not taking place right now. Plus, he recently funded a $40-million renovation of Tampa’s rink with his own money.
So Vinik will probably escape any wrath that Lightning fans may have over the lockout. But as we’ve seen with Katz, you can only push hockey folk so far before they turn on you – no matter how big your clout may be.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.