LCS: Guide to Hockey
"Power Plays: An Inside Look at the Big Business of the National Hockey League" by Gil Stein
by Howard Fienberg, Correspondent
This chap Gil Stein, who was an NHL insider for decades, NHL president for less than two years before he was railroaded out amidst a dubious scandal, insists that NHL players "are not prototypical fat cats. They still play the game with zeal and ferocity and, if anything, NHL hockey is more exciting today than ever." Oh really, Gil? I'd trade the last few years of my life to be reborn again in 1992-93. Mind you, the last four years haven't been exactly hum-dingers, but hey, that's a hell of a lot of studying to have go through again, including the hell of my MA course.
But I digress, because Stein is not yet finished. "NHL players may have lots of money, but deep inside they are the same kids who learned to skate on frozen ponds and dreamed every night of their lives that someday they would hoist the Stanley Cup above their heads while skating a victory lap before their fans." So that's why Petr Nedved is a contract hold-out; I should have known better than to think that he has an inflated sense of self-worth. It is his love for the game that makes him demand more money, right? Uh huh.
Well, thankfully Stein does not spend most of the book trying to shove that kind of garbage down the reader's throat. What he does do is give an intriguing peak into the back-room dealing side of hockey: the lawyers, the businessmen, the GMs, the owners - all the people we love to hate, but who somehow still manage to bring us our hockey.
Stein begins this literary jaunt with his early days as a lawyer for the Philadelphia Flyers, always being asked to bail the Broad St. Bullies out of jail and defending them against assault and battery charges across two countries. It is true that some folks were out to get hokey players as a whole, but his attempts to depict the Flyers as generally decent people only goes so far. In Europe, football fans of opposing teams clash. Here, we read about hockey fans clashing with the opposing team itself. The Bullies pulled no punches, and got off rather lightly considering.
"Take the money now," and "Deal with the future later," was the mixed chorus of NHL owners most anytime expansion came about. Long-term financial stability was never an issue: the only stability that was required was to be able to front the expansion fee - any bargaining on that position was an instant ticket to Splitsville. Stein highlights the owners' desire for the fast-and-easy cash brought by an expansion team to the NHL. After all, even the $50-million expansion fee does not go that far once split 20-some ways. Yeah, I suppose, unless you are a remotely normal human being. With a few million I could get Petr Nedved to skate around my back yard for the rest of the year, squealing like a pig - only an NHL club could call that kind of money chump change.
Stein pads his own image, and probably quite rightly, for having brought in the Mighty Ducks and Panthers while President. Yeah, I know, what do Anaheim and Florida have to do with hockey anyhow, but who cares? They bring in tons of new fans, expand the sports popularity exponentially, and they are in no danger of having to move cities or change owners due to lack of funds. Eisner and Disney may be reluctant to sign a generous deal with Paul Kariya, but they will not fold up in Chapter 11 either way; the Panthers have the equally powerful backing of Huizenga and the Blockbuster chain. Maybe Huizenga can sell video tapes of the Panthers games so people don't have to endure them first-hand. But these two teams, finance-wise, are a blessing on a league plagued by bankruptcy and team-moving madness (witness the Islanders, Oilers, Lightning, fill-in-the-blank).
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book involves the San Jose expansion. Having witnessed the fall of the Oakland Seals, some were reluctant to return to the Bay, but Howard Baldwin wanted an expansion team there. The Gund brothers were not to be denied outright, however, and demanded to move their struggling North Stars there. Eventually, a compromise was reached which effectively split the North Stars' players in half. The Gunds took half the personnel to the new San Jose team, and Howard Baldwin picked up the other half for his newly purchased Stars, which he soon sold in favor of the Penguins franchise. Of course, the Stars did not last long before they were shipped South.
Stein tries to paint a positive portrait of Alan Eagleson, former player rep, and mastermind behind the NHLPA. Now, don't get me wrong, the NHLPA is a good thing, but Eagleson is a criminal, and considered so by both Canada and the US. His replacement, Goodenow, is thoroughly slammed by Stein, accused of breaking up a working system of consociationalism involving the players, as represented by Eagleson, and the owners, which supposedly negotiated in a favorable way to both parties. Let's face it, for most of the NHL's existence, the players were treated like a dung heap, and the owners are now paying for it big-time. However, Stein points out that the owners got off lucky recently due to Goodenow's inexperience. Had he known during the 94-95 lockout to inform his players to serve default notices on their player contracts (with individual clubs rather than the league), the Collective Bargaining Agreement would have favored the players a hell of a lot more than it already does. Such a move would probably have prevented a lockout altogether. Of course, the NHL would probably be in even worse shape because of it...
Stein's whole spiel on the Hall of Fame scandals is not very convincing. He tries to paint himself as the honest and good guy, and while his damning of the Canadian hockey press is certainly well-warranted, I just cannot believe he is as selfless as he would have us think.
Anyhow, the book is expensive, but if you have a few extra dollars burning a hole in your pocket, go buy an ice cream. And if they are out of mint chocolate chip, head to the book store and ask for change of a nickel. While they try to figure you out, pick up Stein's book and run. I love a good five-finger discount.