Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs has been active in trying to forge a new collective bargaining agreement with the National Hockey League Players Association. Jacobs believes hockey is sick and he agrees with commissioner Gary Bettman that there is a desperate need to retool the system.
If it costs the 2004-05 season, which Jacobs thinks it will, then that's the price the owners are willing to pay.
"If I were leaning, I'm leaning more [toward] wait for next year," said Jacobs, when asked about a resolution. "We're talking to a group of guys [among the union's negotiating committee] who, if we wait until next year, they probably won't be the guys who eventually will be playing. This is a wasting asset in their case. In our case, we're trying to preserve an asset. They're blaming us for getting where we are and we're assuming full responsibility for that. But they're not agreeing with our cure for it."
Jacobs said the uniqueness of pro sports provides challenges other businesses can't match. Companies are in business to make money. In sports, some owners aren't concerned about making a profit so much as they are winning. Jacobs says that flies in the face of good business.
"When you're in an industry that values success based on how you finish in the standings or have a Stanley Cup, it's not for economic success, and yet we have to control the economics of this business," said Jacobs. "That's the way we're doing it. If we continue to just leave it on the basis that the guy who wins the most amount of games is successful, irrespective of how they financially win or lose, then that's going to a different discipline and a different set of circumstances. We're going to have to blend the two. We want to take control over this business and the only way we can do it is by satisfying this particular issue [of tying salaries to revenues]."
The players have maintained that it isn't their problem, that the owners need to be protected from themselves. However, Jacobs said unless those safeguards are put into place, some owners will be tempted to push the envelope in the name of winning.
"The guys who own this sport, they want to win that Cup," he said. "When you're dealing with [the richer owners], the financial disparity is great. We have a very eclectic, a very rich constituency who own these teams. Once they put their personal assets into it, it takes the economic realities out of this and we have to, for the long run, make this sport not depend on the largesse of our owners who are putting a lot of money into it, and then they get sick of it and they sell their teams. That's what we've been up against."
In Boston, the absence of the NHL has affected the community in general and Jacobs's Delaware North corporation in particular, which owns the FleetCenter and the concessions business for several other arenas. He said it's been hard but necessary.
"From our standpoint -- Delaware North -- clearly the FleetCenter gets hurt and the hockey business gets hurt." When the union made its latest pitch to the owners Dec. 9 in Toronto, Bettman said there was only 2.6 percentage points between what the owners wanted to pay in salaries (54 percent of revenues) vs. what the players were asking for (56.6 percent). But the commissioner believes with no controls in place (read: a salary cap), that percentage would escalate very quickly.When asked if the process had gone as he expected, Jacobs was pragmatic. "The obvious consequence was not playing and that this could go on for a very long time," he said. "If we don't play this year, it's going to be sad. But as a business, if we can't do it on the right basis, then we can't do it. We're looking for a long-term fix. What we did [to end] the last work stoppage [in 1994] didn't help us at all. This can't be a Band-Aid, to quote the commissioner. As far as Boston's concerned, we have to have something we can grow the sport with. Right now, I think the sport has suffered."
If there is no season, Jacobs said he understands it will have a significant impact on the fan base.
"[The fans] are the ones who are suffering the most," he said. "Beyond the players and the owners, I think the fans are a broader group and they're suffering more than any of us are and it hurts them. I think we're fixing it now but it's going to be hurtful. It may take a completely different posture going into the future. This will be different. We'll have a different group of fans and we'll maybe have a whole different group of players, I don't know. But when the sport comes back, it will have a future I think."