The release of Jonathon Gatehouse’s new book, The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever (Penguin), could perhaps only be better timed if it had hit shelves on the day of the NHL commissioner’s retirement.
No figure is more central to the frustrating tale of the NHL’s current lockout or the league’s remarkable rebound from the last lockout eight years ago, when an entire season was scrapped.
We caught up with Gatehouse, a senior correspondent for Maclean’s magazine, to find out what he learned about Bettman and gather his thoughts on how the current NHL impasse will play out.
Sportsnet.ca: I love the details of Bettman’s reign that are delved into in The Instigator, such as the redesign of the NHL shield. Everyone points to the league’s southern expansion and the big-money TV deals, but which of Bettman’s less-obvious NHL changes had a big impact?
Gatehouse: In recent years at least, I think it’s the way the game is marketed. The NHL has sort of come to grips with the idea that its appeal in the U.S. actually lies in the things that they used to run away from—hockey’s northern roots and regional rivalries. So instead of trying to make hockey all glitz and glam—like the NBA on ice—they’ve settled on selling it as a pure and traditional, rough and tumble form of entertainment. That’s the genius of the Winter Classic and HBO’s 24/7 docs. And with that has come another revolution: they’ve discovered that it’s a lot easier and a lot more lucrative to up-sell their existing fans—getting avid consumers to buy more tickets, watch more games, download more apps—than to futilely chase sports fans with little or no interest in the game.
You write about the 1994 lockout, when Wayne Gretzky called out Bettman as the one man to blame and Mathieu Schneider wore a “Bettman Sucks” sticker on his helmet. Why do so many players focus their anger and frustration on Bettman when they know he’s just doing the owners’ bidding?
It’s pretty simple: he’s the guy on the other side of the table, and they’re heartily sick of him. They get to see all those character traits that the fans despise, up close and personal. In the book, I’ve got a section about the heated relationship between Marty McSorley, when he was on the NHLPA bargaining committee during the ’94 lockout, and Bettman. To this day, McSorley still gets worked up when he talks about it—the perceived disdain and arrogance.
How much of an impact do these player statements, or the more recent one of Teemu Selanne calling out Bettman, have in terms of the public’s perception of Bettman as bad guy?
They just help confirm people’s prejudices. But don’t forget that being hated is part of Gary Bettman’s job description. He’s there to take the heat off the owners, and he’s paid very well for his troubles—$7.8 million this year.
Tensions are rising, with comments made from Selanne, Jonathan Toews, Krys Barch, and Red Wings VP Jim Devellano. It seems as the lockout persists, the sides are getting less politically correct. What are the chances we’ll have another Chris Chelios moment?
Chelios basically suggested (in 1994) that if some nut, or even player, harmed Bettman or his family, it would be his own damn fault. It was totally offside, and it didn’t go over so well with the media or the public. So I can’t really see someone making that mistake again.
1994 video flashback: Chris Chelios vs. Gary Bettman
A common response when a little mud is thrown at the other side is that negative or combative statements don’t help resolve the negotiations. But could there be a case for things having to get worse before they get better? Case in point, the NFL referee stalemate underwent a prime-time fiasco that forced a quick resolution.
If the NHL really cared about fan and public sentiment, they wouldn’t be having their third lockout in just 18 years. I guess you could envision some sort of a catastrophic PR debacle—like angry Oilers fans torching Rexall Place or something—where both sides had to apologize and come to their senses. But really, Don Fehr and Gary Bettman are pretty cool customers and largely oblivious to all the negativity.
What’s the biggest misconception the average fan has about Gary Bettman?
That he has no understanding of the game. You can’t run the National Hockey League for 20 years and not come to have a feel for the product. He’s not some sort of superfan, steeped in the lore and minutia of hockey, but he knows the rules and what the fans like. And when it comes to the business of hockey, he knows it better than anyone on Earth.
This lockout, Bettman said, was voted on unanimously. Do you buy that all the owners are on the same page in this lockout?
The owners won the last lockout because they kept their solidarity better than the players. When it looked like it might drag into a second season, that’s when the players revolted and removed then NHLPA head Bob Goodenow from the equation. So, yes, I do think they’re all on the same page again. Bettman has told them there’s more money to be made and what it will take to get it, and they have no reason to doubt him.
With so many NHLers fleeing for Europe, will the NHLPA’s solidarity be fractured?
Don Fehr seems to have no problem with it, and he’s the guy in charge of keeping up morale. I think it helps put pressure on the owners. And although they must worry about guys getting hurt, or maybe some Russian or Europeans deciding to stay home, they must also be secretly pleased to see so many guys staying in game shape.
What is your stance on the owners and GMs having a gag order during negotiations? Does this hurt or help solve the issues?
The public gag order is there so Bettman and Daly don’t have to spend their days responding to intemperate remarks à la Jimmy Devellano. The opinions are still flying behind closed doors, however. What I question is whether looking like a control freak is ever a good strategy. Then again, it seems to work for Stephen Harper.
In your mind, what is the single biggest positive Bettman has brought to the game?
The way he’s stabilized the game in Canada. Yes, the loonie being at par with the U.S. dollar is a big advantage, but there was a time not so long ago when it looked like this country might be down to two or three franchises. Bettman fought hard to get the other owners to kick in cash, and then lobbied fiercely for government assistance. And he found deep-pocketed owners like Eugene Melnyk (Ottawa Senators) and, dare I say, Daryl Katz (Edmonton Oilers), who at least have the capacity — if not always the inclination — to ride things out through the tough times. Now we have seven healthy and very profitable NHL teams, and I don’t think it’s going to be that much longer before there’s an eighth, or even a ninth.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Bettman as you wrote and researched this book?
The lengths he went to to prepare for the last lockout in 2004-05. He was having weekly meetings with all his negotiating team four years out from the end of the CBA. They knew what they had been charged to do—get a salary cap at any cost—and they planned for it like it was the Invasion of Normandy.
Fans should read the entire book, but is there a specific anecdote or chapter that you think is most revelatory?
I tell a story about Gary Bettman having a framed and signed photo of himself, Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall in the washroom attached to his office at NHL headquarters in Manhattan, and the reason why. It’s at the end of the first chapter.
Your best guess: When will we see NHL hockey again?
Sometime in mid-December. Neither side wants this to drag on to the point where the season is in jeopardy, which is late January, early February. It’s a $3.3 billion a year business, and that’s way too much money to leave sitting on the table.