If there is a relatively quick end to the NHL lockout, say by early December, then the key figures will be the moderate and smaller-revenue owners.
This lockout, the third imposed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman since 1994, could well be decided by a fight among the 30 owners rather than one with the players. Only they can agree to more revenue sharing, the basis of the proposals made by the NHL Players' Association so far. This will only happen if the moderates and the smaller financial fry band together to shout down the rich guys who are running the show right now.
While the strategy of NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and his associates can be seen as one of divide-and-conquer when it comes to pushing revenue sharing, it is hard to argue that it does not make more sense for a league that is perpetually trying to prop up as many as a dozen weak markets every year.
The most successful sports league in the world, the NFL, shares almost every penny that comes in among its teams. Major League Baseball, another outfit that pulls in far more money than the NHL, owes much of its prosperity to increased revenue sharing in a system designed in large part by Fehr when he was head of the baseball players' union.
However, when the NHL players made their first proposal to the owners last month, which called for a moderate increase in revenue sharing, the answer was a quick and resounding no. It was clear Bettman wasted no time in polling the owners and the big-money teams led by the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers carried the vote.
If you are looking for a chief villain to boo and hiss, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs or Flyers chairman Ed Snider are easy targets. Jacobs, the chairman of the NHL board of governors, has long been the league's most influential owner and is the hardest of hardliners. So is Snider, who does not hesitate to lay the stick about at governors' meetings.
In the lockout that cost hockey fans the 2004-05 season, Bettman was powered by Jacobs, Snider, some of the other rich hawks and most of all by the small-revenue owners. The were a lot of teams in financial trouble then thanks to their spending on player salaries and their owners were hawks by necessity. Their bankers told them if they did not get their finances in order through something like a hard salary cap they would start calling loans. That sort of threat makes believers out of even the worst sinners.
This time around, by their own admission, there are far fewer teams in financial trouble. But the usual suspects are in the glue just as bad as they've ever been. And the rich guys are just as disinclined to help them out.
The only way to turn this around is if the moderates like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and some of the other Canadian teams band together with their U.S. counterparts and the poorer relations to push the big boys into a deal. But it will not be easy.
Before the last lockout, Bettman had it written into the NHL bylaws he only needs eight no votes from the 30 owners to scuttle any proposed collective agreement from the NHLPA. As intended, this makes it awful difficult for him and his allies to be outflanked.
However, this time around there is a significant group of teams poised to make progress in their markets. They do not want to sit back and see their big chance spoiled by a long lockout.
Among the key teams are the Los Angeles Kings, who finally won a Stanley Cup in one of the most important markets in the NHL, the St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres and Nashville Predators. The Kings are poised to make great strides in the second-largest NHL market thanks to a young championship team. The Sabres, Blues and Stars have new owners eager to revitalize their improving teams in established markets. The Lightning, Panthers and Predators all made strides in non-traditional markets after years of losses.
None of those teams want to see their hard-won progress slip away over a labour dispute that should have been avoided. It is possible for them to unite and sway their peers but at this point it is a formidable task thanks to the strength of the hardliners and Bettman's legislation.