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John Collins originally joined the NHL from the National Football League in November, 2006, and was promoted to COO in August, 2008.Richard Drew/The Associated Press

The news that John Collins was leaving the National Hockey League Tuesday caught just about everybody off guard, which probably had commissioner Gary Bettman cackling with glee. Bettman loves nothing more than dropping the odd bombshell on unsuspecting insiders in the hockey world. And this one came right of the blue.

Collins, the league's chief operating officer, was No. 3 in the NHL pecking order, behind only Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Collins originally joined the league from the National Football League in November, 2006, and was promoted to COO in August, 2008. The NHL has grown into a $4-billion-a-year enterprise, and many of the recent strides taken on the business side have been credited to him.

Under Collins's watch, the NHL signed lucrative television deals with Rogers Media in Canada and NBC Sports in the United States. He was one of the driving forces behind the NHL's outdoor initiatives, first with the annual Winter Classics and then with the secondary outdoor games that have become cash cows for the league.

Officially, Collins stepped down to pursue an undisclosed new business opportunity. Sources indicated that Collins informed the league of his decision this past Friday and will unveil his new venture this coming Monday, one that was characterized as staying in the general sphere of sports – not necessarily hockey-related, but it could have a hockey component in it.

Collins's departure leaves a significant void in the league hierarchy, but it was not completely unexpected, given his entrepreneurial bent and his desire to be his own boss.

There was a time, early in Collins's tenure in the league, when he was thought to be one of the two primary candidates to eventually replace Bettman as the NHL's commissioner – Daly being the other one.

But the general sense was that door had closed on Collins some years ago for two primary reasons.

First, Bettman isn't leaving any time soon. Many speculated that Bettman could conceivably retire at the end of his current contract, which expires following the 2017-18 season and would also coincide with both his 65th birthday and the NHL's 100th anniversary season.

In theory, that would be a logical time for him to step aside – except that Bettman still enjoys what he does, and the 30 team owners who employ him are happy with his work. As a result, Bettman will almost certainly get another contract extension, which would be his fifth since joining the league in 1993 and would mean his exit isn't likely to come any time soon.

The other factor in the equation is that Collins never really developed enough of an expertise on hockey matters to be a legitimate candidate for the commissioner's role. He was not involved in collective bargaining negotiations with the players' association, and didn't have a hand in rule changes, discipline or any other hands-on hockey matters that routinely cross a commissioner's desk.

Collins may have wanted to see the scope of his job expand early in his tenure with the league, but it never actually happened. Ultimately, he accepted the fact that his primary responsibility was growing the business – and it flourished under his guidance.

Collins was described by one acquaintance as a "creative, brilliant guy, but creative guys can also be restless guys."

In a statement, Bettman praised Collins for leaving "a lasting mark. His energy, creativity and skill at building strategic partnerships helped drive significant revenue growth for our league. We are grateful for his many contributions and wish him the best in his new endeavours."

Collins expressed his gratitude to Bettman for "his leadership and friendship over the past nine years. He had a vision for extending the reach of the NHL, and supported us completely as we set out to make the game as big as it deserves to be."

Collins added: "The NHL's future is filled with promise and potential, and I will admire and cheer the league's successes to come on the global stage."

In some ways, the real mystery was how the NHL managed to keep Collins for nine years. His departure, internally, was always considered to be inevitable – he was never going to be a lifer at the NHL. The only real question was when he'd leave, not if. That question was answered Tuesday.