Blue Jackets Beat: Davidson On Board, Fehr & Bettman Blustering

John Davidson takes the reins in Columbus/Jamie Sabau (Columbus Blue Jackets)

As has been rumored for awhile, and discussed at greater length here and here, the Blue Jackets have now confirmed that John Davidson has been hired to assume the post of President, Hockey Operations.    The Columbus Dispatch broke the news late last night, and other outlets ran with it this morning until the club issued confirmation.  Davidson was formally introduced at a press conference this afternoon, attended by majority owner John P. McConnell, President Mike Priest, GM Scott Howson, Special Advisor Craig Patrick and most of the minority owners.  That roster of attendees, by itself, suggests the magnitude of the event.

Priest set the tone from the outset:

John will have full autonomy and authority over the competition side of the business.

Any notion of “front office by committee” or other “shared responsibility” was quickly dispatched.  This is precisely the type of mandate Davidson needs to get the job done, and the type of unequivocal statement that the fan base needs to have faith in the front office restored. Both the substance and tone of the presser made it clear that this is Davidson’s ship on the hockey side — starting right now.  It was equally clear that Davidson has no qualms whatsoever about taking the helm.

Asked (in several different ways) why he wanted to come to Columbus, Davidson was simple and direct:

Some would say ‘Why do you want to come to Columbus?’  I say ‘Why not?’  You can see they want something very badly.  .  .  When you’re wanted, it means a lot.  All of the checkmarks were on the positive side of the pad.  There are no negatives.

Davidson was equally forthright when discussing the direction he wants to forge for the organization:

We are not going to take a back seat to anybody.  We are going to let the world know this is a world class organization. . . .We are in the business of winning and we want to do it the right way.

Two themes came across throughout Davidson’s statement and response to questions:   Family and Doing It The Right Way.   It was obvious that the Columbus community impressed both Davidson and his family, which made the move attractive, and that he shares a broader sense of family with the organization he works for.  Clearly, Davidson is an “all-in” personality, and makes no apology for devoting single minded effort to those earning his loyalty.   Similarly, he returned to “the right way” of doing things on multiple occasions.  While some might criticize his remarks as somewhat generic and cliche, he has not yet had the chance to roll up his sleeves and get to work —  a process he says “starts tomorrow.”   So, a little semantic generality is to be forgiven at this point in the process.  However, you cannot help but be impressed by his demeanor and his obvious sense of focus.

Predictably, the response around the NHL has been almost universally favorable.  With Davidson’s proven track record, what is widely perceived to be the  single weakest part of the organization has received a galvanizing jolt. With Davidson at the helm, and firmly in charge of the hockey side of the house, both credibility and stability have immediately been established.  While past performance is no guarantee of future results, I think we can expect to see a rational, defined process of improvement that will be evident from the start. Although no details — such as start date — have been announced, I would fully expect that Davidson and the Blue Jackets will take advantage of the down time provided by the lockout, and get right to work on both strategic and tactical plans of operation.  Assuming that there is a season, the Blue Jackets have cap space, a trove of young defenseman and three first round draft picks next season to work with.   I have to believe that stockpile has Davidson salivating — and he made a point of referencing the draft pick in his remarks.

Of course the big question on everybody’s mind involves the future of General Manager Scott Howson.  What is evident right now is that Howson will remain in his GM role for the time being, and will report to Davidson.  What is less clear is what the future may hold for Howson, and for Senior Consultant Craig Patrick.   Setting aside a lot of the enmity and emotion among the fan base over Howson’s performance — perceived and actual — over the past 5 years,  there are a few facts that are relatively unassailable.  First, despite retaining Howson in his GM role, the organization clearly does not view him as having the hockey savvy right now to lead the organization.  The hiring of Patrick  — and his seemingly increasing visibility over time — strongly suggested that fact, and the hiring of Davidson cements that interpretation.  Owner John P. McConnell alluded to Howson (and club President Mike Priest) being “learning people” in the aftermath of the Patrick hiring, so the question becomes whether Howson will continue to learn in Columbus.  My guess is that he will move on.  The ceiling has clearly been clamped down on him, and Davidson will be the face and voice of hockey operations in Columbus going forward.   From Howson’s perspective, that might be just to big of a bitter pill to swallow.   Similarly, Davidson has a penchant for bringing in savvy, dynamic people, and once the dust settles a bit, I would fully expect that would include a General Manager of his own selection.  Time will tell, but it feels more and more like the Howson ship has sailed in Columbus.

As for Patrick, the situation is murkier.  On the one hand, you could argue that no hockey operations department is big enough to accommodate two such venerated operational professionals, and that Patrick would be the odd man out.  However, I have a slightly different take on this.  Davidson made several allusions to Patrick’s knowledge and wisdom, and also referenced their time together in New York, so there is obviously considerable respect there.   Patrick, per his own desires, is clearly a “consultant” — keeping his residence in Pittsburgh, and having no desire to once again experience the day to day rigors of hockey operations in the NHL.  As such, he is not a “threat” to Davidson’s realm, and has undeniable influence and hockey wisdom — a genetic blessing of the Patrick clan.  I would expect Davidson to take advantage of that in the short term, while Patrick is still under contract, though Patrick’s visibility will likely be decreased.  Over the long term, Patrick will certainly fade back into a full time retirement, as Davidson staffs up his operation.  That’s to be expected, but in the interim, there would seem to be little incentive for Davidson to go out of his way to sever ties.

Insofar as Priest is concerned, the press conference opened some eyes — or should have.  McConnell started off his comments by noting that “a lot of the credit goes to Mike Priest”, and then explained that it was Priest who identified the opportunity to attract Davidson, and made the initial approach.  While some might find this surprising, this is undoubtedly a blessing from Priest’s perspective.  He will be the first to tell you that he is not a “hockey guy”, and will relish the opportunity to focus on the financial side of the house.  Priest took too much of the flak for the recent unpleasantness on the ice, and received virtually no credit for what was his primary task — creating an infrastructure in the wake of former President/GM/Coach/Public Advocate Doug MacLean.  MacLean was a one-man band in Columbus, and his departure left an enormous organizational vacuum that Priest had to fill — while simultaneously dealing with a crippling lease situation, snaring the All Star Game for Columbus, and similar tasks that fly under the radar in terms of his involvement.    That the Blue Jackets made it through the last few years without losing more money is a testament to his business stewardship.  I don’t see any change from that perspective.

So, in summary, amid all of the turmoil and anguish over the Blue Jackets situation on the ice, the loss of Rick Nash, and the CBA fiasco, Davidson’s hiring is cause for smiles and optimism.  When you think about it, an interesting trade was just consummated — Ken Hitchcock for John Davidson . . .

Lockout Lockjaw

In the meantime, back in the New York – Toronto corridor, Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr continue their battle of form over substance, trying to see which ego will prevail.  The latest involves Bettman’s alleged refusal to stage a negotiating session, apparently part of his “take it or leave it” strategy on behalf of the owners.  Meanwhile, Fehr continues to diminish his opportunity to seize the moral high ground by his (almost) equally outlandish blustering.

A few points to note here.  First, in this day and age, does anybody really think that there needs to be a set of bodies in the same conference room, decked out in suit and tie, in order

Bill Daly

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

to get a deal done?  Now, having entered the business world long before the Internet came on the scene, I completely understand the desire for personal interaction, and the periodic compulsion to stare your opponent in the eye and flex egos as part of the negotiating process.  However, that sort of exercise in this context is simple foolishness.  Bettman and Fehr have been around the block enough to know that neither side is going to be impressed or intimidated by the other’s antics, so why bother?  Additionally, the core economic issues are to the point where (despite Bettman’s bluffing to the contrary) the two sides are not only in the same ballpark, but are sitting just seats apart from each other.  The necessary adjustments to revenue sharing and what is euphemistically being referred to as the “make whole” provisions can be done in seconds via email.  The rest of the stuff falls in line almost immediately after that.  Hopefully, that is taking place.

At the end of the day, the entire things turns on how the owners can look in the mirror, maintain a straight face, and claim that they should not have to honor the contracts that they battled each other to sign this summer.  Can the owners really hold ranks over that issue?  After all, a minority of them engaged in the shopaholic frenzy.   If Fehr and the NHLPA were smart, they would quickly agree to everything else, and leave that single, tawdry issue as the one keeping the teams off the ice.  Let’s see how the PR pendulum swings then.

Stay tuned.

Jeff Little

Jeff Little

Fan of hockey at all levels, with focus on the Blue Jackets, Miami RedHawks and the business side of the game. I try to bring a rational, even-handed analysis to my writing, wtih just a touch of snark. I use my legal background to bring some more insight on the business side. Love family, travel, hockey, golf and curling.

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