Jacobs envisions an NHL that works
By BUCKY GLEASON
News Sports Reporter
Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs is optimistic that the National Hockey
League will eventually return in some form, but he predicts players will
make less money and the league will look drastically different from the
one fans watched before the league's season-killing labor dispute.
The chairman of Buffalo-based Delaware North Cos. said NHL owners had no
choice but to take a strong stance against players whose salaries
skyrocketed off-course in the 1990s. The new NHL might include inferior
players at first, but he believes world-class performers would
eventually return under a revamped economic system.
"If it's competitive and attractive it will suffice," Jacobs said
earlier this week by telephone. "If you're not getting the absolute best
players in the world - which we may not be - we may have to live with
something less than that. Sooner or later, when you pay the most, you'll
wind up getting the best players in the world. But they will not see the
kind of money that they saw. There's no possibility of that happening
Jacobs could argue he has more at stake than any other owner during the
lockout because he's taking a multifaceted beating. The league had been
suffering financially, but the Bruins were among the few teams last year
that turned a profit. Obviously, that ended this year with the
cancellation of the season.
Delaware North also owns Sportservice, a concessions company that had
contracts with seven NHL arenas, so Jacobs is taking an additional hit
with his business. Still, he said, it was necessary for the league to
broker a deal with the NHL Players' Association that would make sense
for teams throughout the league after years of overpaying players.
The NHL's last offer included a $42.5 million salary cap, which Jacobs
thought might work even though it wasn't tied to revenues. The Bruins
started last season with a $45.7 million payroll and were among the best
teams in the Eastern Conference. Jacobs insists the next proposal must
be tethered to revenues, which were $2.1 billion last year, because less
money will be in the pot under a new system.
"This is the silliness," he said. "It's the drinking-the-Kool Aid sort
of thing where you have guys out there who think, "We're going to make
it so bad for the owners that they're going to want us back.' The fact
is this is getting worse, and it's getting worse for the players more
than it is for us.
"Over half of the income we have goes to them. That half is going to be
smaller. This last agreement, the commissioner was risk-taking on the
part of the ownership. I don't think there will be any more risk-taking
with an undefined income source."
Jacobs, who has owned the Bruins since 1975, has been an influential
force in negotiations between Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA chief
Bob Goodenow. He believes owners have taken a broader look at hockey's
financial landscape while players have been more interested in making
their money now, while they have the opportunity.
He implored Goodenow to examine the NHL's financial records and review
the findings of former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman
Arthur Levitt, whose audit showed a league that had lost $1.8 billion
over the previous decade. The players' union has long disputed Levitt's
findings and suggested that teams were exaggerating losses through
"They had plenty of opportunity to review our books, and they resisted,"
Jacobs said. "They were far better to preach that we were cheating than
face the truth of the matter."
Jacobs suspected that many veteran players would not return to the NHL,
including stars who were nearing retirement. The league could declare an
impasse in negotiations, which would lead teams to begin signing
replacement players to fill out their rosters and resume operations.
"I can see a lot of players quitting this game. I really could," he
said. "I could see where they just don't want to continue, especially
guys that have been out there many years and were depending on this. I
can see a different group of players coming to skate the next time we
start doing that."
Who's to blame for this mess? Jacobs admits it started with the owners,
but he said that matters little now because the system needs repair.
He acknowledged that the labor problems began when owners agreed to pay
exorbitant salaries, driving the average salary from $271,000 in 1990-91
to $1.8 million last season. He suggested that players who are happier
playing in Europe should stay there, but owners are determined to solve
the problems here.
"We're taking control of our destiny," he said. "We're not saying that
we don't share the blame rather substantially in the last deal. If we
didn't foresee the consequences of it, shame on us. But you can't blame
us for trying to correct it. This is the fallacy of the whole thought
process. They say, "It's your fault, it's your fault.' OK, it's our
fault. We're correcting it. We have to fix it."
Bettman announced while canceling the season that he had a list of rules
changes he was ready to install had the labor dispute been settled. They
reportedly included moving the nets back, removing the red line and
limiting where goalies could play the puck.
Fans for years have complained about the on-ice product and suggested
rules changes designed to put more speed and skill back into the game.
Scoring has decreased and interest has waned in the past decade. Many
believe the sport overall must be repaired.
"Who broke it? It's broke, and we're going to fix it," Jacobs said.
"We're taking charge of it. We'll have hockey, and it's up to the
commissioner to describe what it's going to look like (on the ice). It
may be quite different than what we've seen before, and it may have a
The most difficult job the NHL has in the coming years is repairing its
relationship with the fans. Jacobs said he has had numerous
conversations with fans who can't fully comprehend the situation. Fans
have watched ticket prices and salaries soar over the past decade, but
many became disgruntled with labor strife. It has been reflected in
hockey's dwindling popularity among major sports.
"Somebody will talk to you and say, "Gee, what do you see?' " Jacobs
said. "You have no hope for them, really. You can't give them any hope
and that hurts. Hockey is a big release. You want to cheer for your team
or feel badly for them, and you can't do either. That's sad. It's a sad
commentary. There is so much money here, and that we can't come to a
resolution is absolutely mind-boggling. Yet that's where we find