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Top Stories of 2012, No. 10: Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs plays key role in ongoing NHL lockout

12.24.12 at 3:04 pm ET
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Over the final week of 2012, WEEI.com will count down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. Our first entry in the countdown is No. 10: The NHL lockout.

As the sounds of the Los Angeles Kings‘€™ Stanley Cup parade faded out in June, discussion among the hockey community began to turn to the possibility of a lockout. Game 6 of the Cup finals drew more viewers than any hockey game ever had in Los Angeles (though ratings were down somewhat nationwide), and fans and commentators hoped the NHL wouldn’€™t squander any momentum on another labor dispute.

But when the players’€™ union and the league negotiated all summer only to find themselves at an impasse on Sept. 15, the CBA expired and league commissioner Gary Bettman imposed a lockout for the third time since he took the job in 1993.

Now, with games canceled through Jan. 14, over half of the original season is gone. An abridged season like the 48-game schedule of 1994-95, while possible, would have to begin very soon after Jan. 14 to be practical.

‘€œI was a player when we played that 48 games, and it was like a sprint towards the playoffs,’€ Bruins president Cam Neely told ESPN Boston. ‘€œSo it’€™ll be just that, I don’€™t know how many games ‘€¦ we’€™ll be able to get into the schedule, but it’€™ll be a sprint to the playoffs and everybody will know that. It’€™s just a matter of what kind of condition the players are going to be in, because it’€™s going to start off fast and furious.’€

If the 30 owners were to vote on a compromise that would end the lockout, Bettman would need just eight of them on his side to keep it going. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs has become the face of that bloc of eight, reluctant to abandon demands for shorter player contracts and a tighter salary cap (among other conditions). By all accounts, Jacobs has prioritized the owners’€™ desires over a quick resolution to the lockout.

During the 2004-05 lockout, Jacobs told The Buffalo News that the players were uninformed about the lockout and that the owners could afford to drag out negotiations.

‘€œThis 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.’€

Jacobs allegedly clashed with Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller during the negotiations (although Miller denied it).

Prior to the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Jacobs and the Bruins front office more or less dismantled the team, letting numerous free agents walk in anticipation that the new CBA would bring more skilled players to the market. Instead, the B’s lost players including Mike Knuble, Brian Rolston and Michael Nylander and couldn’€™t quite find the talent to replace them.

This year, the Bruins have more of their roster locked up. Just three players will hit the free agent market in 2013, and none are key contributors. In fact, the Bruins have the highest cap payroll in the league for 2012-13, and they signed Tyler Seguin to a six-year deal right before the lockout began.

With that team generally intact over the next two years, it seems more logical from a hockey perspective for Jacobs to push for a quick solution to the lockout. That would allow the team to take advantage of the current roster, considering that the salary cap may drop under the new CBA and the Bruins would have to scramble to restructure.

The B’€™s played it safer than some in the weeks before the lockout began. Over the summer, teams threw mega-contracts ‘€“ like the 13-year, $98 million deals Zach Parise and Ryan Suter each signed with the Wild — at some free agents. Under the conditions the owners want in the new CBA, those contracts would be forbidden. No player could sign for more than five years (unless he re-signed with his former team, in which case he’€™d be allowed seven years).

Players, including Parise, have criticized the owners for signing those decade-plus deals when they knew a lockout was looming, dodging their responsibility to pay their players this year. Bruins forward Shawn Thornton also has expressed frustration with the feeling that the owners are unwilling to hear the players’€™ side.

“We want to play,” Thornton said in late November. “But there hasn’€™t been one bone thrown our way [by the owners] to where guys would say if it went to a vote right now we could live with it. There are things that have to be addressed.

‘€œIf there were a couple of bones thrown in there then there’€™d be enough moderates to voice their opinions to Don [Fehr]. But it hasn’€™t been that way at all. We keep giving and [the owners] keep saying ‘€˜Thanks … what else have you guys got?’€™ Until that changes, nothing [about the lockout] is going to change.”

On Oct. 10, about a month into the lockout, Daly estimated the work stoppage already had cost the league around $230 million — $90 million for the preseason and about $70 million for each week of the regular season. By that estimate, around $840 million in revenue would be lost by now.

It’€™s become almost accepted that in markets where hockey was hanging on by a thread, like Phoenix and Miami, the potential for a truly profitable team could be badly damaged by this lockout. Whether or not that’€™s true — the Edmonton Journal notes that it might not be — the fact remains that revenue has been lost, and team employees and businesses that benefit from hockey have suffered.

Jacobs also owns the TD Garden and Delaware North Companies, which provides concessions for six NHL arenas, so he has lost more revenue than some other owners from the lockout. However, that hasn’€™t pushed him to soften his stance.

The players’€™ union is hoping that a form of decertification for the union, which they began pursuing this month, will be dramatic enough to change the minds of even hard-line owners like Jacobs. The union has voted in favor of allowing the NHLPA to file a disclaimer of interest against the players, which essentially would mean that the players could file antitrust lawsuits against the league.

A similar move helped hasten the end of the most recent NBA lockout, and that, rather than spending months or years tied up in court, is the players’€™ real objective. Whether or not it pushes both sides to compromise in time to take the ice in January remains to be seen.

‘€œI hope that it’s the now and not the never,’€ Thornton said recently. ‘€œObviously every day that goes by ticks away at the clock. We lose paychecks every day and they lose revenue from games played every day. I hope the sense of urgency is finally starting to kick in on both sides.’€

Read More: Jeremy Jacobs, Stories of the Year 2012,