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John Collins, NHL COO, could be costly lockout casualty for Bettman

Greg Wyshynski
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Clear your mind of lockout irritation. Allow your thoughts to wander to what it is, exactly, you've enjoyed about the National Hockey League over the last several years.

The Winter Classic would feature prominently, as would its narrative appendix called HBO's "24/7." How about that NHL All-Star Game Fantasy Draft and all its charming drama (and squirminess)? Do you like the NHL Awards in Vegas rather than Canada? Or the fact that the League seemingly has one tent-pole event every month of the season, like a Vince McMahon PPV schedule?

Do you like the NHL's 10-year deal with NBC? Or an NHL Network you actually watch?

Do you like the NHL having sponsors you've actually heard of, rather than those halcyon days of Waste Management sponsoring shows on VERSUS? How about the connectivity between fans, teams and the NHL — from social media to mobile to the unrestricted flow of digital media from the League's official site?

If these things make your list of "likes" about the National Hockey League, then John Collins has done his job well. Quite well, in fact. He arrived in Nov. 2006 after 15 years in various positions with the National Football League, and revolutionized the NHL's image and culture — a driving force in the League's $3.3 billion in reported revenue in the last year.

Those revenues will plummet off a cliff in 2012-13, thanks to the lockout, and there's no telling what the recovery might entail. Commissioner Gary Bettman's third work stoppage has brought the League's momentum to a skidding halt, with the good vibes of unprecedented growth replaced by bitterness and embarrassment for the game.

In other words: The lockout has managed to harm, undermine or completely destroy many of John Collins's accomplishments and innovations, while leaving the League's COO trying to keep sponsors from revolting.

Because of that, there's a chance this lockout could cost the NHL arguably its most important behind the scenes player.

Multiple sources have confirmed a report by Dave Pagnotta of The Fourth Period on Monday that Collins "isn't a happy camper" at this point in the lockout, and that could mean his eventual exit from the League.

(Collins declined comment for this story through an NHL spokesperson.)

From Pagnotta:

In news first reported by Joey "Vendetta" (well connected to the NHL, and no, that's not his real last name), it has been speculated that Collins is considering and exploring all of his options. Whether he decides to leave is an entirely different matter, but I've been told by multiple sources that he's "upset" -- not only by the length of the lockout, but by being shut out of the negotiation process, which, by itself, raises eyebrows.

Collins, an award-winning businessman aficionado, who made his bones on a much bigger NFL stage, has been one of the NHL's top assets since the 2004-05 lockout (he first jumped on board in late-2006). League revenues have jumped approximately 150% since he joined the NHL, and it's no secret the League can't afford to lose him.

Either he's been speaking about his discontent to others or his supporters are working the spin, because Collins' frustration and potential departure were framed as "the worst kept secret of the lockout" in our conversations with sources yesterday.

One story making the rounds is that Collins said directly to Bettman: "I'm getting off the Titanic before it sinks."

Could you blame Collins? Consider:

• The cancellation of the most ambitious Winter Classic the League's ever attempted in Michigan, with multiple venues and a chance at an outdoor attendance record.

• The cancellation of the NHL All-Star Game, which featured some Collins innovations and at the very least provided sponsors with a weekend of glad-handing and admiration.

• The 'herding cats'-like effort to keep those sponsors in line during the lockout, while hearing major backers of the League like Molson publicly bemoan the lockout and ask for reparations from the NHL.

• The way the lockout has poisoned the well for the NHL in social media, which has thrived under Collins. (Seriously, have you read the @NHL replies on Twitter? We sorta hope Bettman hasn't, for his own sanity.)

The problem for the League is that it needs Collins more than he needs them.

The NBA would hire him in a millisecond. A return to the NFL isn't out of the question, or a position with a television network. One scenario has Collins leaving the NHL to start his own consulting firm.

Nothing we've heard indicates Collins is leaving, just that he's entertaining the option. Everything we've heard is that one of the single most important individuals in the League's growing revenues, reach and respect is quite frustrated with the lockout and the ripples that will affect his various projects.

As Collins told Sports Illustrated last year, his innovations for the League are "all about polishing the (NHL) shield and making it stand for less of the bureaucratic stuff that all fans sort of stick on a league -- they don't like the schedule, they don't like the officiating. It puts more of a spotlight on the emotional connection that fans have with the game."

Collins has to know that reestablishing that connection with fans could be one of his most exasperating undertakings. The shield's been tarnished.

UPDATE: Collins responded to the departure talk through an email to Pierre LeBrun:

"Not true. No one is/will be happy until we reach a long-term agreement that returns our focus to growing the game/revenues."

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