Blog Entry

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

Posted on: May 22, 2009 1:34 am
Edited on: May 31, 2009 11:14 pm
Of all the things necessary to fix the NHL, step # 1 is simple: Fire Gary Bettman.

Bettman has been NHL commissioner since February 1, 1993.  Since that time, the league has hit a series of low points, including 2 major work stoppages, the loss of national television revenue, an increase in the amount of goonism in the game, poor expansion strategy, unstable owners, the neutral-zone trap, and a lack of respect for the league's history, among other things.  All this has led to a league that was ready for a breakthrough into the mainstream in the early 1990s to a league that is on the verge of slipping into complete irrelevance in less than 15 years.  How did this all happen?  Let's start at the beginning.

When Gary Bettman took over the NHL, he became its first commissioner (the head of the NHL to that point had been the league president).  After having spent most of his career in the NBA, where he rose to third in command, the NHL hired him to replace interim president Gil Stein.  Bettman worked in the legal and marketing departments in the NBA, and was one of the people involved in developing the NBA's salary cap.  This was key to the NHL owners, who had just gone through the first work stoppage in league history, a 10-day strike late in the 1991-92 regular season.  The strike was a victory for the players, but the CBA that was signed lasted for only one season.  The owners fired then-NHL President John Ziegler and replaced him with Stein on an interim basis.  Bettman was eventually hired with the goal of instituting a salary cap in the NHL.

The 1993-94 season was arguably the high point for the league in at least the past 30 years, if not ever.  Hockey was on the verge of becoming a true major player in American sports, due partly to the Rangers' drive to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years (and the resulting media attention); expansion to new markets in California (San Jose and Anaheim--with the resulting backing of Disney, who named their team the Mighty Ducks after their hit movie franchise), Florida (Florida and Tampa Bay), and Ottawa; and a surge in merchandise sales due to the expansion teams, as well as crossovers such as rappers wearing hockey sweaters during videos, giving the league exposure to a new audience.  However, the seeds of the league's downfall were also in place. 

Bettman, who had never even BEEN to a game before taking over as commissioner, showed his lack of hockey knowledge by snubbing his nose at league tradition by changing the name of the conferences (Wales and Campbell) and divisions (Patrick, Adams, Norris, and Smythe), which honored some of the league's founding fathers, to generic geographical names, taken right from the NBA.  He also tried to turn the NHL into the NBA on Ice by taking steps to remove fighting from the game, angering fans and creating disciplinary problems on the ice.  The league also played without a CBA in place during the season, and when the NHLPA wouldn't agree to a salary cap, Bettman locked the players out right before the start of the 1994-95 season.  When an agreement was finally reached, half the season had been wiped out.  The league, which had signed a new national TV contract with FOX to begin showing games that season, suffered a blow that it still has not recovered from. 

Even after losing half the season, Bettman and the owners had only managed to get a salary cap on rookies, and not on all players.  The CBA was eventually extended to the 2004-05 season, when the league decided to make another push for a salary cap.  Backed by hardline teams such as Chicago and Boston, the NHL gave Bettman the right to veto any offer from the union as long as just 8 of the 30 owners backed him.  The league's insistence on a salary cap eventually cost them the entire season, as the NHL became the first pro sports league to lose an entire season to labor issues. 

By this point, the league suffered a major blow to it's revenue, as NBC was only willing to do a revenue-sharing deal with the NHL, instead of paying a rights-fee upfront (putting the NHL on par with Arena Football as far as American network TV was concerned).  Also, ESPN declined the option on their contract with the NHL, causing Bettman to take the league from a basic cable staple seen in almost every household in the country to Vs. (the recently renamed Outdoor Life Network), which is a much smaller network lacking ESPN's availability.  This loss of television revenue has also caused teams to shift more of the cost burden onto fans attending games.

And let's not forget that just last week, the NHL was forced to alter its playoff schedule due to a Yanni concert.  Yes, you read that right.

I don't want to go too long in this post, and I'll go into greater detail in future posts about the following topics:

What else has Bettman done?  He's pushed for eliminating fighting in the game, which angers hockey fans, as well led to an increase of ugly on-ice incidents due to the players' inability to use fighting to police the game because of the stricter penalties.  Out of the 10 longest suspensions in NHL history (handed down due to cheap shots by players), 9 of them have come in the last 15 years under Bettman's regime.  While incidents such as this have unfortunately happened throughout the history of the game, they have increased as the league has cracked down on fighting.

The NHL has also done a half-assed job when handling expansion.  After seeing the revenue rush into the league coffers in the form of expansion fees and new merchandise sales from the early 1990's expansion, the NHL rushed to add more teams and relocate existing teams into new markets in the American South, relying on the retirees living there to support the new teams, a strategy which has, for the most part, failed.  While trying (and failing) to grow an American audience, he's done nothing but spit at the league's Canadian fans.

The league has also had problems with owners (and potential owners).  Bruce McNall, who owned the Kings during their glory days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was sentenced to 70 months in prison due to fraud, and the Kings were forced to file for bankruptcy due to his dealings.  Disney bailed on the league, selling the Ducks at a loss in 2005.  The Penguins went into bankruptcy, forcing Mario Lemieux to take ownership of the franchise because they couldn't afford to pay him.  The Islanders have been gimping along trying to get a new arena built for a decade now.  The Predators and Thrashers are struggling.  The NHL is currently in a court battle with Phoenix owner Jerry Moyes to see who controls the Coyotes.  And Bettman has been carrying a years-long feud to keep Jim Balsillie, CEO of the company that makes BlackBerry smartphones, out of the league.  Balsillie is currently trying to buy the Coyotes out of bankruptcy and move them to Hamilton, Ontario, after being blocked from buying the Penguins and Predators.

A major on-ice issue that emerged during the Bettman Era was the use of the neutral-zone trap, in which teams would score a goal to take a lead, then clutch-and-grab opposing players in the neutral zone (and pretty much all over the ice) in order to prevent them from moving the puck and be able to score.  This led to a steep reduction in scoring, and a very boring style of hockey to watch.  This style of play, which took hold in the mid-1990s, was not addressed for 10 years, with rules to crack down on it going into effect during the first season back from the lockout.  Somehow, I can't imagine the NFL letting something like that go on for so long.

Then there was his suspension of Sean Avery for his "sloppy seconds" comment earlier this season.  While I am not a fan of Avery at all, and yeah, it was a crude comment, it did not merit a 6-game suspension (which was announced as "indefinite" at first).  While there's a LOT things Avery's done in his career that could've merited suspension, this was the least of them--but it's the one Bettman went after. 

While there is one--and only one--thing I'll give Bettman credit for (The Winter Classic), even THAT'S tainted by the fact that he told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year that he didn't see it as something the league would do every year.  Bettman HAS to go.  This league can never succeed to it's true potential as long as he's in charge.

My choice to replace him: Flyers owner Ed Snider.  He knows hockey, having been in the league over 40 years as the Flyers' founding owner, and has turned them from one of the "Second Six" in a non-hockey town to one of the strongest franchises in the league.  Hockey went through an incredible rate of growth during the Flyers early years, and they continue to try to create new fans, going as far as taking over the operation of city-owned rinks in Philadelphia when the city was going to shut them down due to budget problems.  They also run clinics for inner-city kids to expose them to the game, as well as promote youth hockey throughout the Philadelphia area.
Category: NHL

Since: Jun 10, 2009
Posted on: June 10, 2009 4:31 pm

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

Well said. We Canadian fans wear rain sheilds from the amount of spit Gary Bettman has spewed our way since he joined the league. It's pretty obvious that he DOES NOT want another team north of the border. Guaranteed if Jim Balsillie was based out of Las Vegas, GB would be bending over backwards to let this relocation happen. I think that GB is a power hungry ego maniac that needs to be let go for the sake of long term prosperity for the NHL. Thanks for giving me this forum to vent.

p.s. Check out the move "Bon Cop, Bad Cop" - it's a Canadian made murder mystery movie based loosely on NHL history. The character that portrays Bettman ("Harry Buttman" in the movie) is pretty hilarious!

Since: Jun 8, 2008
Posted on: May 28, 2009 1:17 am

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

thanks the words of Jody Mac, "'Preeeeeciaaatte it"...but i cant take full credit...i mean, Bettman just makes it so easy...i almost feel like the school bully robbing lunch money from the kid in the wheelchair...anyway, ive only just begun...stay tuned...

Since: Jan 25, 2009
Posted on: May 27, 2009 7:42 pm

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

It was a joy to read this. I have been preaching your same words for years, but always upon deaf ears. It's a bloody shame really. Bettman finally came to his senses to instruct referees to make more calls freeing up the skilled players to be, well, skillful and fun to watch. However, like you pointed out, it took him a decade! What!? I remember watching the Sharks play in their first few seasons and just thinking what a shame it was to see guys intentionally hook a guy by hist waist and tug him to the ground without any sort of call. The only obstruction penalties they called was when a guy got hurt because of it. Now, with all these new penalties, the referees are out of control. They are burdened with the responsibility to call EVERYTHING these days that they can't make up their minds on whether to call the obvious hook at the arm or the slight stick-to-stick contact on an attempted stick lift as hooking.

The NHL DOES review it's referees but with an extremely loose policy based on statistcs from PowerPlays mostly. Basically, the Refs could call anything at any moment. There is always a player holding something (a jersey, a stick, an arm, a hand), or committing some sort of infraction as it pertains to the Rule Book, but referees have been stripped of their judgment by the NHL allowing them to make those calls, even the extremely questionable ones, without reprimand.

Get someone in charge of Hockey Operations that actually knows what Hockey Operations are about. That should be simple right? Why Bettman?

Since: Oct 22, 2006
Posted on: May 26, 2009 2:43 pm

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

Fly - When did Wes Goldstein become a writer? Seriously, you're spot on. Coverage is abysmal. I would argue that Shaggy is the only REAL hockey writer on this site. Goldstein is a hack and a fraud. I don't think Wes even watches hockey games. He writes like a guy that watched a couple of highlights and then spit out in article in ten minutes flat. The TV contract desperately needs to be addressed. And don't worry about going all over the place - we all do it.

Since: May 13, 2007
Posted on: May 26, 2009 2:24 pm

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

Absolutely amazing article shaggy, very well written and 110% true. Gary Bettman is a moron and IS the reason why the NHL gets the shaft when it comes to media attention. I mean look at this freaking site here, it is a perfect example. There are plenty of writers around for the NFL, MLB, NBA, and even College football and basketball. But the NHL has one, count them one, writer on this stie, Wes Goldstein.

I hate the people who try to claim that hockey isn't a sport because it's not well televised. Like some higher up jerk from the NFL was on ESPN during the draft and was talking about how the NFL Draft was more of a sport than hockey. Are you freaking kidding me!? TV contracts have nothing to do with it being a sport, it's the idiocricy and subborness of Gary Bettman that determine TV contracts. People who say hockey isn't a sport, obviously never played it.

I love the NHL and I will continue to watch as much as I can, because I think hockey is the best sport out there and it isn't full of drug addicts and gun carrying wanna-be thugs. The game is much more fast paced than it was even in 2004 and I don't know how many times I've watched games where the play goes for 5+ minutes straight with no whistles. We have a bunch of young super-stars who are going to be around for a long time. We have growing fanbases in Pittsburgh, Washington and Columbus. I think if people were able to check out a game on TV more than twice a week on a channel that many people don't know they have, the NHL could see a big increase in viewership. I know a lot of my friends who were fans of the NBA, stopped watching the NBA for the NCAA tournament and find the NBA to be a joke of what it was when Jordan was playing. I've turned quite a few people onto the NHL and they were surprised at how much different it was from what they remembered.

Like you said, Gary Bettman has got to FREAKING GO! Fixing the NHL after Betmman really won't be that hard. Get the bankrupt teams to new cities or have them fold all together, get a new TV contract with ESPN or Fox or someone that is a channel that everyone has. The game will sell itself, just look at those places like Pittsburgh who was struggling with attendance and going bankrupt a few years ago, but just broke records with TV ratings for the game 7 against Washington. 

Again, great article and sorry for my response going all over the place! Tongue out

Since: Jun 8, 2008
Posted on: May 26, 2009 11:39 am

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

thanks dweez, your feedback is always appreciated...

the officiating--yah, i should've have mentioned that, but it's such a mess that i think the entire system needs to be dynamited...i don't think that any of the leagues evaluate their officials as much as the NFL does, which is mind-boggling (and also maybe another factor into why the NFL is head-and-shoulders above the rest)...for example, only the highest-rated officals get to work in the NFL postseason, but i believe MLB still rotates their postseason umps on the basis of "It's your turn"...not exactly the quality of officiating i'd want for my showcase event...

the goalie equipment--another good was getting ridiculously big, but shrinking the size of goalie equipment was one of the rule changes that took effect coming out of the lockout, wasn't it?  i could be wrong about any case, maybe that's something else that should be addressed again...

and growing youth hockey and improving fan relationships are something that i'm in total agreement with you on...i'm going to touch on them in future posts...

Since: Oct 22, 2006
Posted on: May 26, 2009 1:11 am

Fixing the NHL--1. Fire Gary Bettman

Solid article once again, Shags. We disagree on the fighting issue, as you know, so I won't go down that road with you again. The two main things I think you overlooked were the goalies and the officials. While I don't believe Bettman is directly responsible for either, under his reign goalie equipment got noticeably larger cutting down on scoring due to equipment, not skill. Also, the officials have no real accountability. I believe officials should have their calls reviewed on a weekly basis, regular updates from the League how to call specific penalties (it seems every ref has a different definition for every call). Each off season each official should have their entire body of work reviewed, and, finally, if education and video tape reviews doesn't improve an official's game then suspensions and even firings have to be on the table.
Some issues you did mention - the Winter Classic not only has to be a regular event, it should be expanded. It's a fantastic idea and needs to happen more than once a season. The NHL needs to do much more to encourage the growth of youth hockey. The more kids that play it, the more potential stars of the future and, those that don't make the NHL, will at least be fans of the game.
A minor issue you did not bring up - demand that owners do more to improve fan relationships. CBJ has an amazing fan experience called "Jackets Fest". It raises money for charity while giving fans and their kids a chance to get autographs, pictures, and team memorabilia. It's good for the community because it raises some money for a good cause and it's good for the game because it is such a positive fan experience. They also used to have the "Stick Kid of the Game". One kid per game would win the chance to sit on the bench during warm ups, ride the Zamboni, and get some really nice autographed memorabilia. It was an amazing experience for any kid and created a die hard CBJ fan for life. Unfortunately, CBJ no longer does the "Stick Kid" contest, but it is the kind of thing that the owners of each team need to do a regular basis to help cement the bond between their fans and their teams.

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