PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- It was not entirely unexpected that the executive compensation rule was abolished at the board of governors meeting Tuesday.
That it happened without a peep of opposition from anyone in the room, well, that definitely is a surprise on some level if you understand how deeply disappointing it is to a number of people.
Most notably, it was somewhat stunning that Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke didn’t mount any protest given how passionate he was for years to bring back this rule. But it makes sense once you dug a little deeper into why.
As another governor said, "You have to know when to pick your battles, and when Gary says it’s dead, there’s no point fighting that."
And yes, commissioner Gary Bettman, who hated the fact this new rule came back last year, had the thing killed and there wasn’t anything anyone was going to do about it.
"Bill Daly, the deputy commissioner, gave a lengthy report of the history, of what there was, what the protocol was that I put into effect roughly 10 years ago to the reaction and change we made this year, and I decided to, as of Jan. 1, to go back to the old rule, which was there is no compensation," Bettman said after the two-day meetings wrapped up. "You either give permission to negotiate, and if the two parties actually make a deal then the executive is free to go. But there is no compensation. If you don't want to give permission to somebody who is under contract, whether or not they're employed but they are being paid and still under contract, is the club's decision."
The crux of the controversy since the new rule was put into place in January was that it unexpectedly included fired coaches, general managers and presidents of hockey operations. Which is not what most general managers who wanted this rule felt was in keeping with the spirit of the original discussion.
"We think it needed to apply to terminated personnel," Bettman said. "It wasn’t a policy that was free from issues. There were collateral issues that were impacted by the conveyance of the draft picks or not, the compensation. What we had worked very well for 10 years. It was a sentiment by some of the managers that we should do something different. I resisted for a while. Perhaps against my better judgment I deferred to them to try it. But again, when I discussed this with the executive committee they were all in agreement that going back to what we had was the correct thing."
Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who spearheaded the move for the new rule at the GMs meeting two years ago, declined to comment Tuesday.
Burke, who was the first to push on this years ago, accepted the league’s decision.
"If you go back and the history in this interests anybody, what we were trying to do was provide an orderly way for young management people or coaches to be allowed to progress and move up the ladder," Burke said. "But a team that had skill at identifying young people would be compensated for it. It was never envisioned it would apply to terminated employees. The league applied it in that manner and they presented today, I think, some compelling ideas for eliminating it, and they eliminated it."
One of the compelling elements of wanting to abolish it is the revelation, sources confirmed Tuesday, that the NHL Players’ Association filed a grievance against the league last summer related to the new rule. Why? Because the union felt the new rule was a collective bargaining agreement matter given that it involved draft picks and that the NHLPA should have been consulted on the matter. The NHLPA also felt that losing draft picks as compensation hurt the ability of teams to pull together offer sheets to restricted free agents.
It’s all a moot point now with the rule abolished. But it might also explain why the proponents for the rule didn’t push back Tuesday.
Plus, in Burke’s case, it’s worth noting that his owner, Murray Edwards, sits on the executive committee, which green-lighted Bettman’s motion to kill the rule. So it wouldn’t be in Burke’s best interest to come out swinging on it from that perspective.
There was a common thought from some GMs heading into the meetings to modify the rule, eliminate the fired guys from it, but that didn’t generate any traction.
"I think, on balance, it just wasn't worth the debate, the confusion, the uncertainty that flowed from it," Bettman said. "Frankly, I thought the old policy worked very well. I think you remember from the GMs meeting, one of the caveats that I put into place when I agreed to implement the revised policy a year ago was that if there are any problems with this we will scrap it and go back to what we had. That ultimately happened. We deferred to the will of the GMs for a year, we tried it, and I think we were better off with the policy we had."
So for a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose part-owner Larry Tanenbaum sits on the executive committee and supported the abolition of the rule, it means having given up two draft picks as compensation last summer for the hires of Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello, two picks they can’t get back.
"And you know what, if we had to do it over again, we would still do it, I think, with what we got in return," Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said. "It’s unfortunate timing for us, but there’s some things that are in your control and some things that are not. And I agree with the league’s stance after a year to abolish it. We move on."
Shanahan’s interpretation of the league’s reasoning for killing it?
"In a nutshell, they went through very extensive reasons for why it wasn’t working and why it was bound to get more and more complicated. And I think that’s probably why this is a good idea to walk away from it. It was probably going to get even more complicated."
Added Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson: "It’s pretty simple, I don’t think it was working out the way it was intended to and we’ll go back to the way it was -- which was if you want to talk to somebody, you ask for permission to talk to them, and if they grant it, then they grant it. If not, then they don’t."
More expansion fodder
The board of governors meetings wrapped up with no hint of when an official expansion vote would be held or whether or not expansion was definitely coming.
"This is just me, but I think we’re inching toward a team in Las Vegas," said one NHL owner who requested anonymity.
And if that’s the case, where does that leave Quebec City?
Part of the problem with Quebec City’s expansion bid is where exactly to put the team since there are 16 clubs in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western Conference.
All of which keeps bringing some governors back to relocation when it comes to Quebec City as its best option.
I asked Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. about the constant rumors regarding his team’s future and his answer was direct, to say the least.
"There’s never been a discussion of any kind with anybody with the Hurricanes on that," Karmanos said when asked about possible relocation. "We have one of the best arena deals in the league, if not the very best. We’ve been there almost for 20 years. That’s our home. That’s where we’re going to stay."
To be clear, I asked again: As long as he is owner, the team is going nowhere?
"Even when I’m gone, the team isn’t going anywhere," Karmanos responded. "Because of the deal we have with the arena in Raleigh is so lucrative. You would have to be an idiot to move it."
In the meantime, Karmanos continues to look for a potential investor to purchase part of the team.
"I’m looking for a partner that I can transition, as I’m 72 years old, transition the team in an orderly fashion to somebody three, four, five, six years from now, God willing, if I’m around that long," he smiled.
I also asked Tanenbaum on Tuesday about the prospect one day of a second NHL team in Toronto.
"Again, it’s all speculation. When it comes up, it comes up. We’ll deal with it at that point," Tanenbaum said.
Tanenbaum, a member of the owners’ executive committee, was part of an extensive expansion update on Monday.
"We look at the economics of it, we look at the aspect of how it affects the player pool, how you look at broadcast rights, there’s so many things you look at," Tanenbaum said. "You can’t say you like it or you don’t like it, it’s just something that you consider in the totality."
His sense of where it’s headed?
"It’s moving forward but there’s a lot of moving pieces to it," the Leafs part-owner said. "It’s not just a guy coming in and paying an entrance fee for it, there’s a number of things you have to look at and how it impacts the 30 teams."
The league delivered a lengthy concussion protocol update that underlined the initiatives and progress taking place. The league also had a legal update with the ongoing lawsuit from former players.
"I think there is no question that the concussion protocol is working," Bettman said. "The spotter program as we refined it is working. The board was showed a couple of videos: One was what we use to educate the players on concussions and, two, what we use to educate the spotters. We're proactive in dealing with this issue and I think the board was very comfortable with what they were hearing."
This season, clubs have the choice of using the league spotter for games or their own team spotter.
"We’re using the data that we’re accumulating from both spotters to see what is the most effective way to do it," Bettman said. "In short, we’re going to evolve this to make sure it’s effective."
Reading between the lines there, I’m guessing that means the league is collecting evidence it will use to warrant the move to independent league spotters only starting next season.
Bettman would not comment on the lawsuit launched from the family of the late Steve Montador.