NHL doesn't blink without asking its lawyers for permission

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

Want to buy a National Hockey League team? Want to investigate the activities of NHL players? Want to get some help for your labour negotiations?

If you work on the 47th floor at 1251 Avenue of the Americas in New York, the advice is always the same.

Just pick up the phone and call Proskauer Rose LLP.

When you get right down to it, it is not Gary Bettman, the man with the nice big corner office on that 47th floor, who runs the NHL. It's the lawyers over at Proskauer Rose, an expensive (some would say obscenely expensive) legal firm near Times Square.

Bettman and his staff can do the groundwork, but in any matter of consequence, Proskauer Rose gives the final go-ahead.

When the league needs extra help during its many confrontations with its workers, in comes Bob Batterman -- a partner at Proskauer Rose.

When Bettman decided that he wanted to investigate the vastly overblown "gambling scandal," he quickly made it clear that he had more faith in Proskauer Rose than in Wayne Gretzky.

Bettman brought in one of the firm's lawyers, Robert Cleary, to do the investigation. Bettman stressed to the media that he had the utmost faith that Cleary would act with impeccable integrity, a quality he at no time attributed to Gretzky.

Whenever an NHL team is sold, or makes any changes in the corporate structure, copies of the agreement go to the league's legal staff and to Proskauer Rose, the NHL's tame legal firm.

One of the league executives who has gained in prominence lately is Doug Perlman, a former associate at Proskauer Rose, who subsequently joined the NHL's legal battalion and is now the executive vice-president, media.

Clearly, the prerequisites for the job have a lot more to do with writs and torts than instant replays and press deadlines.

Perlman was on the front lines for the negotiations with the Outdoor Life Network, the basically invisible carrier that the NHL turned to when it lost its ESPN deal.

When asked about the laughable NHLTV situation recently, Perlman said, "We're certainly going to try to grow ratings. I certainly wouldn't say we need to, but it's a key metric that people measure the popularity of the sport by, so we're certainly focused on it."

Other than the fact that Perlman has an affinity for "certainly," what can we deduce from this?

Apparently, the OLN ratings, often so low that they don't even register, but generally in the 0.1 area, are certainly irrelevant to him.

And Bettman's "stated commitment to the players to grow the revenues," is certainly irrelevant too.

Or perhaps Perlman intends to make a call to Proskauer Rose, so that they can tell him how to increase a sport's revenues without increasing its microscopic television ratings.

Coincidentally enough, before getting into the sports world, Bettman worked at Proskauer Rose.

SILVER LINING

It's a problem Bob Gainey doesn't mind having.

The better Montreal Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet plays -- and going into last night's action, he led the league in save percentage -- the more it's going to cost Gainey to sign him for next season.

Huet, who's earning $456,000 US this year, becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer. By that time, he may have taken over the league lead in goals-against average from Dominik Hasek. He currently is second at 2.13.

The last time the Canadiens had a hot goalie they gave him a $5.5-million deal. That's the one Jose Theodore took with him when he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche.

The other Montreal goalie, David Aebischer, who seems to need six goals by his teammates to have a chance to win these days, is earning $1.9 million.

When a player shoots to prominence, there often is a wide variation between the asking price and the offer. But there's also another factor to consider.

Contracts are not like awards. The decision takes place after the playoffs, not before. If Huet is as dominant in the playoffs as he has been in the regular season, his value will shoot up even further, so much so that the Canadiens will have little choice but to meet his price.

They did it for Theodore. Fan pressure will demand that they do it again.

STILL AROUND

Even though Philadelphia Flyers captain emeritus Keith Primeau is out for the season with a concussion, he never is very far from his team.

He's on the ice at least three times a week and he's now their "overview coach"

"Towards the end of the year they always bring in someone," Primeau said. "They call him an eye in the sky. It's usually a coach up in the press box just watching tendencies: Team tendencies,the way we're playing, how we're doing with our systems, if with our systems we're doing something wrong.

"He's watching the game but he's not watching in that regard. He's watching the team. He's watching the players and how they're playing in certain situation. It's kind of an overview."

The entire Flyers organization is unanimous in its opinion that the absence of Primeau's leadership is the biggest concern as the team heads into the playoffs.

Because he finally is starting to show signs of genuine recovery, Primeau is spending more time with the team. But for most of the season, he didn't.

"I've really tried to keep my distance in that sense," he said. "Knowing the difficulties I was having and the limited chance I had of returning this year, I didn't want to have an influence.

"It has really taken the group a long time to kind of find how to direct the ship. I'm not in there enough to know if there is one guy necessarily, so much as the veteran group has kind of taken it upon themselves to right the ship and direct it collectively."

That veteran group, led by Derian Hatcher, has filled some of the communications gap created by Primeau's absence. The Flyers' playoff success, or lack of it, will determine how effective that group has been.

But Primeau thinks the Flyers' injury-plagued season will stand his team in good stead.

"It's teams like this -- that go through that adversity in the regular season -- that find the fortitude in the playoffs," he said. "Teams that sail through the regular season and don't have their backs against the wall just kind of don't respond the same way.

"Our young kids are grizzled already and they've really turned a corner and are playing great hockey for us. It's a tossup in the Eastern Conference and we're one of those team you can toss up in the air."


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