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Oilers owner Daryl Katz, left, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, found out the hard way not to play with the emotions of Edmonton hockey fans. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press)
Oilers owner Daryl Katz, left, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, found out the hard way not to play with the emotions of Edmonton hockey fans. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press)

Roy MacGregor

Puck might not be in play during NHL labour talks, but egos are Add to ...

One side of the mouth calls it a game, the other a business.

It’s a business; it’s a game. It’s a game; it’s a business.

At the moment, sadly and foolishly, it is neither; but when the NHL does start up again, it will once again be both game and business.

Nearly 50 years ago, on March 21, 1963, the-then president of the NHL, Clarence Campbell, spelled all this out to the Empire Club.

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“What is its business?” he asked of the league he oversaw. “We play hockey. But that is not quite sufficient. You have to go a little further than that. We are fundamentally involved in a fairly substantial segment of the entertainment business.”

NHL owners, he said way back then, were sportsmen of a type, but “they are also primarily interested in the entertainment business, and this will motivate a large portion of the decisions and the attitudes which they have taken from time to time.”

In other words, every time you hear an NHL owner or spokesperson talking about “business,” know that this is not the same, not even remotely so, as a business producing cars, housing, computers, groceries or, for that matter, widgets.

There is, in sports ownership, a game within the game, and that game is ego.

People who own sports teams talk profit, but success has a subsidiary measure for them, as well.

The late George Steinbrenner was famous for saying “When you’re a shipbuilder, nobody pays attention to you. But when you own the New York Yankees, they do, and I love it.”

Canada’s, and hockey’s, equivalent was Peter Pocklington, former owner of the Edmonton Oilers, who candidly admitted one day that “I got into hockey because I wanted to be recognized in the streets.” He was to a bizarre point where he tried to parlay public recognition into the leadership of the Conservative Party, a rather telling story of what happens when ego takes over the boardroom.

It still happens in Edmonton.

Hands up, please, all those hockey fans who had ever heard of Daryl Katz as owner of the Rexall Pharmacy chain.

Young men don’t sit around playing “fantasy pharmaceuticals” – well, perhaps that’s a poor choice of words – but when you own a hockey team, in Canada at least, your life is instantly and magically transformed.

First of all, everyone – fawning players and broadcasters included – starts calling you “Mister.” Reporters write down and record your every utterance. You visit editorial boards, speak to service clubs, have your picture in the papers and, guaranteed, will be shown and mentioned on television at every single home game you attend.

The effect can be mesmerizing. “When I first took over the team,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told the Los Angeles Times last year, “I was in Disney World every day.”

It is tempting to say you cannot buy attention like that, but in sports you certainly can.

Katz, however, found out there can be a flip side to Disney World when he naively sought to hold Oilers fans for ransom – this at a time when he and other NHL owners were locking arena doors, this in Canada where the “if-I-don’t-get-what-I-want-I’ll-go-somewhere-else” gambit has long since grown stale – by very visibly toying with moving his team to Seattle if he didn’t get all the breaks his group was chasing to build a new downtown rink in Edmonton.

The fan backlash was so severe that Katz, to his great credit, took out full-page ads to apologize for his heavy-handed actions.

Owners make mistakes, particularly in the early goings of their sudden-found fame. They arrive hugely successful and convinced that their business acumen has proved that they always know best. They don’t, as so many discover and few learn from. “You think you understand it,” Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals told the Times, “but until you are in this pressure cooker, you don’t.”

NHL owners are in a pressure cooker right now, with the heat guaranteed to be applied increasingly as the lockout cancellations add up and fan frustration boils over.

This is no longer the NHL of Clarence Campbell, where owners’ heads and voices often rose far higher than the league president’s own. There are no Smythes, Ballards, Norrises, Wirtzes to break order these days.

It is, increasingly, a Disney World where owners are corporate conglomerates, their heads as unrecognizable in the streets as the average fan. And league commissioner Gary Bettman has done an extraordinary job of herding these lions. So far.

It is worth pointing out, however, that even if the puck is no longer in play, egos are – and the possibility of breaking ranks exists on both sides, players and owners.

Being recognized in the streets is one thing.

Being chased through the streets is quite another.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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