The annual board of governors meetings under NHL commissioner Gary Bettman are always carefully-scripted affairs. A master of backroom dealing, Bettman will assess team owners' positions on important decisions, allow argument before the actual meeting, and arm-twist as needed to put an agenda in place. When the meeting is over, everyone comes out smiling and it's announced the matter was passed by unanimous vote.
This year however, in one of the few times since Bettman took office in February, 1993, a major issue remains unsettled in advance of the meetings on Monday and Tuesday. Realignment of the league must take place before next season, and there is a lack of consensus among the governors.
Bettman himself acknowledged this on his satellite radio show last week, admitting a concrete plan might not come out of the sessions. While asserting a plan for next season needs to be in place by the governors' meeting on Jan. 28 in Ottawa during the all-star break, he pointed out examples of the complexity.
"Dallas, who's in the Pacific, plays a lot of its road games very late at night," Bettman said. "Minnesota is in a place where they're playing a lot of their games west in the Northwest. And then you say, well, okay, if we put Winnipeg in the Northwest and we move Minnesota to the Central, isn't that great? And then Colorado says, 'Wait a minute, then I'm the only U.S. club in a division with four Canadian ones.'" There are believed to be two plans on the agenda – the first being a four-division plan, the second a simple move by Winnipeg to the Western Conference with the Detroit Red Wings replacing the Jets in the Eastern Conference.
Several governors contacted by The Globe believe a four-division concept will carry the day. The concept, first proposed last summer, would do away with the present two-conference, six-division setup and be organized generally by time zones, with two divisions of eight teams and two of seven teams. Each team would play home-and-away against every other team in the NHL, with the remainder of the schedule contested within the divisions.
The top four teams in each division would make the Stanley Cup playoffs. The first two rounds would take place within the divisions. In the semi-finals, the division winners would be seeded according to their regular-season point totals – the No. 1 team would play No. 4, while No. 2 would meet No. 3.
The four-division plan would likely result in fewest complaints, and should get the required 20 out of 30 votes. For example, both the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, who want to play in the East, could be accommodated.
The original four-division proposal had rivals Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers in different divisions, which did not please either team. One solution is to put them both in a division with the more northern teams as long as closer rivals like the New York Rangers do not object.
Another complaint is that it would be easier to make the playoffs in a seven-team division. But there's no perfect scenario.
The FOUR DIVISION SCHEME
Pacific Division: Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose, Phoenix, Anaheim, Los Angeles
Midwest Division: Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Dallas, Colorado, Columbus, Winnipeg
Atlantic Division: Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils
Northeast Divisiion: Toronto, Buffalo, Ottawa, Montreal, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
ALSO ON THE AGENDA
While realignment will occupy most of the governors' time, they will discuss some other issues like the state of the Phoenix Coyotes' sale, the St. Louis Blues and their European operations. There will also be the annual report from the hockey operations department about on-ice matters like concussions (down from last season) and competitive balance.
Blues chairman Dave Checketts announced a month ago he was selling the majority share of the team (held by an equity fund) to Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer and a group of partners that will include former Tampa Bay Lightning owner Oren Koules. But there has been silence since then and it is not expected the governors will vote to approve Hulsizer as an owner.
In the meantime, Blues minority owner Tom Stillman is waiting in the wings. He has some serious money in his group, chiefly the Taylor family, which owns Enterprise Rent-A-Car and St. Louis-based Enterprise Holdings, which is the 16th-largest private company in the United States, according to Forbes magazine.
NHL chief operating office John Collins will have good news to report about the league's business in Europe and Asia. After a slow start, the television rights to the league's overseas markets are now sold, with a deal in Russia the latest to fall into place.
In a confidential memo to the governors two years ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league took in $14-million (all figures U.S.) in European television rights, which it split 50-50 with Comcast, which then owned Versus, the league's main U.S. carrier. Bettman also outlined a strategy of building the league's presence on multiple platforms to show international advertisers it has a substantial audience in European, Asian and Middle Eastern markets.
Last summer, the deal with ESPN America, which covered Europe and the Middle East, expired and Bettman decided to negotiate deals individually in each country. He took some heat for the slow start but Collins is expected to tell the governors the NHL will now earn more than double the previous deal, some $30-million, from its overseas broadcast revenue on different platforms.
The governors will get a report from deputy commissioner Bill Daly on where things stand with the NHL Players' Association in the final season on the collective agreement. The deal expires in September, 2012.
At this point, the owners seem to have a leg up since the NBA players were the most recent group to agree to a big cut in their share of the league's revenue. The NBA lockout ended when the players agreed to take 50 per cent of overall revenue, while the NFL Players Association settled for 48 per cent last summer.
No one thinks the NHLPA will maintain the current 57-43-per-cent split in favour of the players. A 50-50 split is the betting favourite but don't be surprised if the owners try hard for more.