BY SCOTT FESCHUK & STEVE MAICH
This stories below appear in Sportsnet Magazine’s Sept. 20 issue on Gary Bettman. Subscribe today & follow on Twitter (@sportsnetmag)
Love or hate him, Gary Bettman is the poster boy for the current state of the pro game. Two of Sportsnet magazine’s best debate his legacy. Up first, columnist Scott Feschuk points out that the current labour strife is a death sentence for hockey fans.
SCOTT FESCHUK IN OTTAWA – On the day the NHL locked out its players, the league released a “message to fans.” Let’s have a look—the NHL’s actual words are in bold.
Thanks to conditions under the previous CBA, competitive balance has created arguably the most meaningful regular season in pro sports. Fans and sponsors have agreed the game is at its best, and the league has generated remarkable growth and momentum.
This seems like a counterproductive way to make the case for a lockout. Hockey has never been better! We’re all getting rich! There’s no stopping us now! So let’s alienate everyone and drive this prosperous enterprise right into the side of a mountain! WHO’S WITH US??!!!
While our last CBA negotiation resulted in a seismic change in the league’s economic system and produced corresponding on-ice benefits, our current negotiation is focused on a fairer and more sustainable division of revenues with the players—as well as other necessary adjustments consistent with the objectives of the economic system we developed jointly with the NHL Players’ Association seven years ago.
Boy, the league really has the common touch, doesn’t it? Go back and read that sentence again—it’s like a thesaurus got drunk and threw up into a Word file. Remember, this is supposed to be a “message to fans.” Apparently, the NHL is under the impression that its fans sympathize with the boss in Dilbert. I demand an ESPN “30 For 30” documentary on how this sentence was allowed to come into existence.
Scene: NHL HQ. A swanky office.
Bettman: You know what would really get through to the average hockey fan?
Some flunkie: What, sir?
Bettman: A ponderous 63-word sentence that reduces the game people love to a “corresponding on-ice benefit” of an efficient economic system. I’m talking about a sentence so jammed with managerial buzzwords that anyone who reads it will feel as though they’re being personally fired by Mitt Romney.
Some guy paid to nod enthusiastically when Bettman says stuff: [nods enthusiastically]
Seriously though, if you didn’t have a rooting interest before this sentence, how can you not support the players now? I’m not sure we’ve ever been exposed to a more telling description of how owners perceive the game of hockey. We think of it as winning the Stanley Cup. They think of it as achieving productivity gains within the corresponding on-ice benefit of a wealth-producing economic system.
Those adjustments are attainable through sensible, focused negotiation—not through rhetoric.
Let’s begin with the “sensible negotiation” part. If you’ll recall, Bettman’s opening offer to the players was this: The owners get all the money, whereas you receive a tasty soda on the car ride home. (To be fair, in the third year of this new CBA, players would also have been entitled to one  post-game hair tousling.) Next up: the “not through rhetoric” part. This is rich. Folks, there is no commissioner in sport, no man in business, no human in dress slacks who employs rhetoric with more enthusiasm and a more exaggerated New York accent than Gary Bettman. I’d bet $50 he spends the first five minutes of lunch talking down to his sandwich.
The league, the clubs and the players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately. We owe it to each other, to the game and, most of all, to the fans.
We’re doing it all for you guys! We owe it all to you guys! Yay, you guys! P.S. Please drop to your hands and knees and assume the position to come crawling back to us.
Up next, magazine publisher Steve Maich defends the commissioner for turning the league into a revenue-generating machine (that doesn’t hate Canada).
STEVE MAICH IN TORONTO — Every saga needs a villain, and for most of the past 20 years Gary Bettman has provided a convenient target for hockey fans.
The complaints began almost from the moment he was introduced as the new commissioner of the NHL back in 1992. He was a basketball guy, hired away from David Stern’s NBA. He carried himself with that unmistakable smooth-talking confidence of a New York lawyer. And then there was the natural combativeness, and his habit of smiling smugly while arguing his points.
A lot of fans hated him on sight, and their opinion has never wavered. The list of his perceived slights and offences is a long one, from expansion into marginal southern cities to the various rules to discourage fighting and the escalation of salaries and ticket prices. Over the past 20 years I have heard too many anti-Bettman rants to count, sometimes around my own dinner table. He knows nothing about hockey. He has no respect for the game’s traditions. He’s determined to emasculate the sport. And of course, the big one: He is motivated by nothing but money and greed. Aye. The “G” word. Greed. That’s an important one. But before we tackle it, let’s first dispatch with a few of the more specious charges against him.
Let’s start with an easy one: Gary Bettman does not hate Canada. He did not conspire to steal the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques and move them to Phoenix and Denver, any more than he conspired to undermine the Atlanta Thrashers and move them back to Winnipeg last year. He might not have grown up skating on his Uncle Howie’s backyard rink every night until his fingers and toes were frozen, but that doesn’t mean he’s ignorant of (let alone hostile to) the traditions and values of the game. He recognizes that hockey stirs deep passions in Canada, and that those feelings are a strength of the game, not an annoyance. He would have to be bone stupid not to realize it. Gary Bettman is many things, but stupid isn’t one of them.
Since we’re on the topic of moving franchises, it’s important to note that Bettman was not the author of the league’s southern expansion strategy either. It was league policy when he joined. Tampa, San Jose and Dallas already had teams. The process for awarding Miami and Anaheim franchises was in its final stages when he was hired. The movements of teams to Phoenix, Denver and North Carolina weren’t orchestrated by the league, but by businessmen who liked their chances in those markets better than they did in Winnipeg, Quebec City and Hartford. Four expansion teams have been awarded during the Bettman era: two in the south (Nashville and Atlanta) and two in the north (Columbus and Minnesota).
The commissioner is also not a closet pacifist, bent on removing risk and violence from the game. The much-maligned instigator rule predated his hiring. In fact, it’s tough to build a case that Bettman has really strong feelings about any of the rules of the game. He has never campaigned openly for change, leaving such questions to be handled by the league’s rules committee, which is dominated by current and former players. When he speaks, he almost always focuses on the need to protect the entertainment value of the game—speed, skill and scoring, all things that most fans would heartily endorse if they were coming from someone other than a smiling New York lawyer who doesn’t skate and is motivated by nothing but money and greed.
Ah, right. Greed. Bettman and the owners are particularly vulnerable to this charge, especially since this is the third time the league has locked out the players under his leadership. The optics practically scream that the fans are taken for granted as the uber-rich argue with the very-rich about the relative size of their windfalls. Fans feel a proprietary ownership over the game and their favourite teams. But that sense of ownership is an illusion. The fans don’t own hockey any more than I own McDonald’s when I eat there. We are consumers of the product, and Gary Bettman is a business executive leading a media and entertainment company. Fans don’t like to think about the game in those terms, but the commissioner is paid about $7.5 million per year to think of the game in exactly those terms.
Is Gary Bettman worth $7.5 million per year? Well, I hate to tell you this, but compared to CEOs of other multi-billion-dollar media and entertainment companies, Bettman’s compensation is pretty typical. You can argue that nobody is worth that much money, including the players. But it’s much tougher to argue that he has failed to do his job well. Twenty years ago, the owners hired Bettman to modernize and expand the league. They wanted more fans, more TV viewers, better facilities and more money. And that is exactly what they’ve gotten.
Now, we humans are sometimes guilty of false nostalgia, and sports is particularly susceptible to misty watercolour memories of days gone by. We look back fondly on the game of our adolescence—the players were better, they had respect for each other, the food was cheap and delicious. Sorry, but the truth is that the league was a gong show for 20 years before Bettman came along. You can scoff at the stumbles of Phoenix and Atlanta if you wish, but for real comedy go back and read the history of the California Seals/Cleveland Barons. Or perhaps the Kansas City Scouts/Colorado Rockies. Or, just for fun, go back and refresh your memory about the time in 1983 when Ralston Purina sold the St. Louis Blues to a group planning to move the team to Saskatoon. You may recall that the league blocked the sale, Purina launched an antitrust lawsuit and the Blues’ corporate owners protested by refusing to participate in the NHL draft that year. Good times. I could go on—the creation story of the San Jose Sharks is pretty good for a laugh—but this is meant to be a defence of Gary Bettman, not an indictment of his predecessors.
Evidence of the league’s successes, meanwhile, are all around us. Of the 30 NHL clubs, 25 are playing in rinks that have been built since Bettman joined the NHL. Today, the decrepit Nassau Coliseum is a league-wide joke. But as late as the 1990s, it still looked like a fairly typical NHL rink. The league is miles ahead of its competitors in terms of digital tools and delivering game action on the Web—a fact that has brought Bettman into conflict with at least one owner who wanted a bigger slice of the online cash for himself. The league has managed to achieve a decent level of competitive balance and has taken steps to eliminate the stifling defensive style that began to take over the game about a decade ago. And big events like the Winter Classic have been a huge success, both in terms of branding and fan interest.
Ultimately, however, it’s revenue that tells the story. Total league receipts were well under a billion dollars when Bettman arrived. Today they are $3.3 billion. That alone tells you the commissioner has been wildly successful in the task he was handed by the owners all those years ago. Has he made mistakes? Yes. Is he sometimes an easy target for scorn? Absolutely. Would I want to be stuck on a desert island with him? If I have a choice, I’d prefer to be accompanied by Rachel McAdams, please. It’s the old politician’s question: Is the league healthier today than it was five years ago, 10 years ago and 20 years ago? Yes, yes and hell yes.
As a fan, I understand the anger, and I share it. In fact, if you want to send a message to the league, visit facebook.com/sportsnet and sign our petition to demand a quick end to the lockout. But focusing all that vitriol on Bettman himself doesn’t make a lot of sense. In some ways, this lockout is a consequence of the league’s success. It’s a massive business now. Everyone associated with the game, from players to owners to corporate partners, has been enriched enormously. Now they are fighting about how those riches should be apportioned while the fans wait in limbo, and hopefully watch more junior hockey.
Like most fans, I don’t much care who is right, and I certainly don’t care who wins. I just want the game back. But I just can’t bring myself to hate Bettman. And if I were to guess about the outcome of this fight, I wouldn’t bet against him either.
Which argument do you support the most?
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