ANALYSIS

Clash of ideologies: NHL talks not just about money

MONTREAL — The Globe and Mail

If you’re going to argue, it might as well be about divvying up a $3.3-billion pile of loot.

But everyone involved is already fabulously rich and getting richer, so greed seems an unsatisfying and simplistic explanation in analyzing the motives at the NHL bargaining table.

So how’s this for an alternate view: what if ideology is at play in the league’s contract dispute?

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It’s established fact that a majority of the group of plutocrats who own NHL franchises is financing the effort to get fellow rich guy Mitt Romney into the White House, but there’s a persuasive argument the guy they really want to see in the executive branch is Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

The owners are anything but a homogenous ideological bloc, but at least a few of the voices around the governors’ table subscribe to a stoutly capitalist and virulently anti-union philosophy.

That is to say they’re Rand-ians – adherents to the beliefs of the late polemicist and novelist Ayn Rand – or at very least have strong libertarian sympathies.

The group is headlined by influential Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, who co-founded a think-tank named for Rand and executive-produced movie adaptations of her novel Atlas Shrugged, and L.A. Kings partner Philip Anschutz, a retiring type who supports many libertarian and right-wing causes (and who once owned the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged).

Minnesota Wild majority owner Craig Leipold and his wife Helen, an heir to the SC Johnson fortune, have long financed the campaigns of Ryan, an unabashed Rand enthusiast, and Tea Party-backed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose goal is to kill public-sector collective bargaining in his state.

Electoral records compiled by the Centre for Responsive Politics show Leipold, who has attended negotiating sessions with the NHL Players’ Association, and Anschutz made modest donations to a political action committee with links to Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a Tea Party favourite who has earned a perfect score from the American Conservative Union and once suggested to the Washington Post that the 1,100-page Atlas Shrugged, his “foundational book,” was “too short.”

Anschutz is also a contributor to Americans for Prosperity, a Republican-supporting political action committee backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch (key allies of Walker, Ryan and other conservatives in Wisconsin).

It’s unfair to paint all the NHL owners with the same ideological brush. Like any club it has a wide range of members, the Canadian owners tend to be politically discreet and Washington’s Ted Leonsis and Pittsburgh’s Ron Burkle are well-known Democrats.

But in a dispute that conflates economic and political arguments, the question for the coming weeks is how loudly the right-wing arguments will resonate.

Even some of the more politically moderate owners have a history with organized labour.

The Boston Bruins’ Jeremy Jacobs, the powerful chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, is a long-time Democrat donor, but organized labour hasn’t always considered him a friend; the billionaire’s catering concern, Delaware North Companies – and its subsidiaries – have been accused of anti-union tactics both north and south of the border.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which is chaired by St. Louis Blues co-owner Andrew Taylor (former Republican senator John Danforth is part of his group), has also been the object of boycott campaigns by organized labour – the company was accused of farming out jobs to a non-union contractor after employees in Boston voted to organize in 2007.

Popular Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who made his billions in the oil and gas industry, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, who recently took on teaching and transit unions in the state.

We could go on.

It’s not a stretch to paint the current contract talks as a contest between two competing historical currents: the rabble-rousing labour crusading of the post-war period and the Ronald Reagan-inspired movement to rewrite labour laws in favour of employers.

The NHLPA’s line of argument is being crafted by old baseball union hands – executive director Don Fehr’s longtime mentor is the legendary Marvin Miller, a swashbuckling activist who cut his teeth with the auto and steel worker unions and brought Major League Baseball to heel – and its lead counsel used to be in charge of unfair labour practice investigations with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board in New York.

All but one of the NHL’s in-house labour law experts – and the league’s outside counsel – are veterans of Proskauer Rose, a Wall Street law firm that for decades has represented management of companies such as Bethlehem Steel (it also produced NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NBA counterpart David Stern).

The players, who are among the richest card-carrying union members in human history, will portray themselves as the working stiffs of the piece – a stretch, as any of the hourly wage workers in a hockey arena will tell you.

They may want to remember some of their bosses have put up large amounts of money in support of politicians and legal strategies whose aim is to make organized labour a historical relic.