On the surface, prospects for an end to the NHL's 2-month lockout took a nosedive this week, when commissioner Gary Bettman proposed a 2-week moratorium in talks after bargaining reached yet another standstill.
Behind the scenes, there seems to be a seismic shift going on among the NHL's Board of Governors, also known as the group that Bettman answers to collectively.
And Flyers chairman Ed Snider may be the big mover-and-shaker behind it all.
Multiple sources confirmed to the Daily News on Friday that Snider, once seen as a supporter of the Bettman's push to rein in the players' share of revenue, has soured on the process after it became apparent that a deal would not be brokered in time for a Dec. 1 puck drop.
Put simply: Snider and the rest of the NHL's owners were promised a big win by Bettman, with player concessions on revenue division and contracting rights. The best they'll get now is a small win in revenue split - coupled with a demoralized fan base and all-important corporate sponsors that are ready to quit.
A source familiar with Snider's thinking characterized it as: "If this is the deal we are going to get, what's the point of dragging this out?"
Neither Snider nor team president Peter Luukko has publicly addressed the lockout since it began on Sept. 16, for fear of a $1 million fine from Bettman.
Snider, 79, is the NHL's longest-serving governor and serves on the board's executive committee, which helps steer policy. A backroom wheeler-dealer, Snider can make his moves in a practical way via the board's numbers.
When it comes to labor negotiations, league rules require a a vote of 75 percent of governors to oppose the commissioner's recommendation. That means Bettman has absolute power, so long as he has eight out of 30 owners to block any hostile movement against him. Bettman actually needs only seven owners to support him, since the league owns the Phoenix franchise.
There have been many educated guesses over the last few weeks as to which franchises are a part of this "hardline" bargaining group of Bettman's staunchest allies, but my list first included Boston, Minnesota, Calgary, Washington, Dallas, Philadelphia and Anaheim, in addition to Phoenix.
Others did not have the Flyers originally among that hardliners list. But the Flyers' original thinking, at least in terms of what this reporterhad learned, was that they were pro-lockout on Bettman's conditions. They trusted him. They made huge money after the 2004-05 lockout, when their payroll dropped from $71 million in 2003-04 to the capped $39 million number in 2005-06. They also participated in two Winter Classics, hosting one at Citizens Bank Park, and a Stanley Cup final without reaching their previous payroll level in seven straight seasons.
Bettman and Snider have worked well together over the years - and Bettman is well aware of Snider's power, sensing a need to keep the Flyers' owner in his pocket in times like these. For Bettman, the Flyers are a linchpin.
To be sure, Snider and Co. were not against the lockout. Some in the media pegged the Flyers during this process as "middlers," or those that wanted to play but were interested in results.
That all has changed. On Friday, multiple sources indicated Snider's "strong discontent" for Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, a big-market owner who has been one of the lockout's ringleaders.
Despite their on-ice rivalry, there seems to be some thinking that the Flyers are interested in teaming up with the midmarket but high-revenue Pittsburgh Penguins to sway more governors toward a swift resolution. The Rangers are also viewed as anti-lockout.
At the very least, if the Flyers are changing their view, two important questions arise: Which other teams have shifted? Where is this whole thing heading?
While some of the smaller-market teams have been interested in a greater percentage of "hockey related revenue" to help get back in the black, there is a growing sentiment that any lingering effects from this lockout could wipe out a franchise in Columbus, Florida, Nashville or Tampa Bay entirely.
According to a source, the Flyers' top-level executives presented their own proposal for the collective-bargaining agreement nearly 3 weeks ago. It remains unclear whether their proposal was the engine behind the league's progress last week, when they strung together lengthy bargaining sessions in 7 out of 9 days.
The Flyers have also proposed the use of a high-profile mediator to help smooth things out. Former President Bill Clinton's name has been kicked around, which does not make a whole lot of sense, though, given Snider's conservative political ties. Neither side has officially asked for the use of a mediator.
When Bettman proposed the 2-week moratorium in talks this week, which would cause the players to miss their fourth of 13 paychecks, perhaps he was hoping they would get antsy and ask for a vote to end the lockout. Now, with the way things are going, Bettman is likely just hoping it doesn't result in a vote in his own boardroom.