NHL looks for the next big idea in post John Collins era

ANN ARBOR, MI - JANUARY 01: John Collins, COO for the NHL, looks on during the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on January 1, 2014 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The NHL’s governors saw former league COO John Collins as an idea guy. He was someone who would give presentations and impress people with his thoughts and his vision.

“Every time he spoke or they talked about the next big thing it was like a ‘Wow, this is fantastic. This is going to take the NHL and exposure of hockey to a new level,’” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile told Puck Daddy.

But there’s also a sense amongst the league’s governors that Collins, who left the NHL in late November to take part in a new business venture is replaceable. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he would take on many of Collins’ responsibilities. The governors made sure to both praise Collins, but also noted that a creative culture in the NHL helped give Collins a platform.

Collins was the force behind the NHL’s Winter Classic and multiple outdoor games. He also helped broker billion dollar television deals with NBC Sports and Rogers. Collins was also the point man on the NHL’s deal with MLB Advanced Media.

“He had done a great job for the NHL and we will miss him but nobody is irreplaceable,” Predators co-owner Tom Cigarran said in an interview with Puck Daddy. “He has good people behind him who are doing a lot of the work, so we’ll be fine. We’re sorry he left but those kinds of things happen.”

Bettman said Collins had seven “reports” who are now in direct contact with the commissioner.

“I'm going to spend some time working directly with the seven and then we'll decide whether or not we want to bring somebody in to give us some bench strength in a particular area, whether or not I want to do some internal reorganization,” Bettman said. “I'm not necessarily looking for a new COO.”

Collins’ vision was felt in multiple parts of the league. Even though only bigger hockey markets (and some large non-traditional US markets) received outdoor games, these events helped enhance the NHL’s visibility around North America, which aided the smaller markets in the process. Also, the NHL’s television deals helped funnel greater revenues into the smaller markets.

“One thing I’ve said since the beginning is we don’t just own a hockey team, we own 1/30th of the NHL,” Arizona Coyotes co-owner Anthony Leblanc told Puck Daddy. “So any time that something is done that grows the league, like the Stadium Series, like the Winter Classic does, like the World Cup of Hockey, that’s going to be an exciting tournament where I hope and anticipate there will be some good representation.”

The NHL announced it had hired former IMG exec Steve Mayer as executive vice president and executive producer, programming and creative development. But his role sounds more events based and less all-encompassing than Collins’ role.

“He’s going to be involved in aggregating content and making it accessible on all platforms. We’re thrilled to have him join in,” Bettman said. “One of his first and most important responsibilities will be coordinating the many, many, myriad of things that we intend to do with the centennial. We don’t intend to announce those yet, waiting until we get closer.”

Those who worked closely with Collins understand his thoughts and how he turned an idea into a reality. While he may not be irreplaceable, he brought a fresh perspective to the league at a time when it needed him.

In 2008, the year Collins was hired, when Forbes announced its NHL team valuations, the Toronto Maple Leafs led the NHL at $448 million. When Forbes announced its most recent valuations, three teams – the Leafs, New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens – were at $1.15 billion or more.

“John had a huge impact on the league. I was lucky enough to have an office two down from him. Let me take that back. I was lucky enough to have a cubicle two down from him for a couple of years at the NHL,” said Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who worked with Collins for a period with the NHL. “There’s a very talented group of people I’m sure will have an impact for sure but John left a positive impact on the league for a long long time.”

Several of Collins’ ideas have become league staples that won’t change. The Winter Classic and the league’s Stadium Series games are valuable components to its business model. Even though his gone, he left a lasting impact on the economics of hockey.

“I’ve known John for six years and he’s done some great things for the league, as a leader and from a marketing perspective – some of the events we have that are new for sure, replacing someone like that is going to be a challenge just like in any organization,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said to Puck Daddy. “But under him I think he had a good team as well, and we spent some time being introduced to those people yesterday. And they’re seven people who will work hard to fill his shoes.”

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!