Two words that can send hockey fans into a nervous twitch.
Two words that have single-handedly increased the demand for Prilosec and Diovan in North America.
Two words that have become the ruin of television screens across the world due to projectile impact.
Yes, the words Gary Bettman can induce many different reactions from hockey fans, and very few of them positive.
If you aren’t a hockey fan, or if you’ve chosen to tuck this information in a part of your temporal lobe typically reserved for repressed memories, Gary Bettman is the commissioner of the National Hockey League, and to put it bluntly…hockey fans hate him.
There’s just no other way to say it.
Bettman has been commissioner of the NHL since 1993, and there’s no denying, he’s done a lot of harm to the game and the league. Yes, the good is there too, that’s inevitable with just about any commissioner of a professional sports league, but it’s the bad that really screams out at fans like an Arnold Horshack just begging for attention.
As bad as his tenure has been (and we’ll get into specifics momentarily), is Gary Bettman the worlds pro sports commissioner ever? A case can be made to support that statement, and here’s why.
The first thing you have to point to is the relationship with fans. As with any league, fans are the bottom dollar. Fans buy the tickets, the merchandise, the food at the arena, and they tune into the games and provide revenue for advertisers.
Fans and Gary Bettman – definitely not peas and carrots, not even oil and water. More like…baking soda and vinegar.
Commissioners, even good ones, get booed by fans. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gets booed. MLB commissioner Bud Selig gets heartily booed. Former NBA commissioner David Stern got vigorously booed towards the end of his tenure.
Gary Bettman gets absolutely destroyed. Boos, profanity and obscene gestures are incredibly common when Bettman takes to the podium in front of a gathering of NHL fans.
The fact that fans have such a vitriolic response and open disdain from Bettman’s presence tells you a lot about his effectiveness as commissioner of the league. The negativity has grown to the point that writers such as James O’Brien of NBC Sports‘ Pro Hockey Talk have taken the position that someone other than Bettman should hand out the Stanley Cup so that the incessant booing does not spoil the ceremony.
For the winning team’s captain, it’s the height of exhilaration, whether that player is a fresh-faced (but wacky side-burned) youngster such as Jonathan Toews or a gray-bearded veteran like Ray Bourque. Yet, every time, you know that Gary Bettman will be there … and there will also be a merciless onslaught of boos.
Bettman can still speak on behalf of the league in big interviews and important moments, but maybe he should step aside during a moment of such unbridled fan passion.
But a commissioner can still be effective even without the love of the fans. So how does Bettman’s body of work stack up while in charge of the NHL?
When Bettman took over in 1993, one of the major tasks he was charged with was to end the growing labor unrest in the league, and to make the league profitable and to help bring revenues to struggling franchises.
To this task, he has failed miserably. The NHL has suffered three work-stoppages (all lockouts) during Bettman’s tenure — something that no other commissioner over the same period has had occur.
The three lockouts were all major in terms of games and time during a season lost.
1994-95: 104 days. Season shortened from 84 to 48 games.
2004-05: Season canceled
2012-13: 113 days. Season shortened from 82 to 48 games.
While labor issues are never one-sided, the fact that all three work-stoppages were lockouts by the owners rather than strikes by the players tell a lot about Bettman’s ability to lead. The 2004-05 lockout which canceled the season gave the NHL the unfortunate “honor” of becoming the first North American league to cancel an entire season because of a labor stoppage.
Bettman was also charged with making the league more visible, and to gain bigger television revenue shares. His initial success – a five-year, $155 million deal with FOX (remember FoxTrax puck?) – quickly began to deteriorate, as the league has struggled for find a permanent television home.
Coverage bounced from FOX, then to ABC/ESPN (remember when ESPN actually showed hockey outside of SportsCenter?), to NBC, to Outdoor Life Network (then renamed Versus and now NBCSN), and now being shown on Comcast-owned NBC Sports Network.
The lack of coverage by ESPN (who, like them or not give incredible exposure to any league whom with they are involved) was not a choice by the Worldwide Leader, but rather a rejection by Bettman from the offers by ESPN and others in favor of the 10-year deal with Comcast/NBC.
Over this period of instability in network coverage, the league has seen dwindling returns in television revenue, much in part to Bettman’s decisions. Overall, the NHL has the smallest total fan base of the four major North American leagues, the smallest revenue from television, and the least sponsorship. That’s not what Bettman was charged with doing.
Not to mention how these TV deals excluded and alienated the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and in turn, the country who feels responsible for the creation of modern hockey.
The changes to the game under Bettman’s tenure have also been untenable in the eyes of many fans, and players as well.
During the 1980s, known as one of the most explosive eras in NHL hockey, the league averaged 7.69 goals per game. Since Bettman took over in 1993, that average has now dipped to 5.34 goals per game. [Source quanthockey.com].
While great goalies and stifling defense may be impressive to watch, fans pay to see goals scored. They want to see Wayne Gretzky’s 92 goals and/or 215 points in in a single season, or Mike Bossy’s nine consecutive 50-plus-goal seasons to start a career.
Leave the 1-0 games to be enjoyed by futbol fans.
Here are a few of the rule changes that have contributed to a less exciting and marketable game.
- 1992-93 – No substitutions allowed in the event of coincidental minor penalties called when both teams are at full strength. High-sticking redefined to include any use of the stick above waist-height (previous rule stipulated shoulder-height).
- 1998-99 – Goal lines, blue lines, defensive zone face-off circles and markings all moved two feet closer to center, creating 13 feet of room behind the nets and cutting the neutral zone from 58 to 54 feet.
- 1999-2000 – Regular season games tied at the end of three periods, will result in each team being awarded one point in the standings. A team scoring in overtime will receive one additional point in the standings.
- 2002-03 – Hurry-up face off and line change rules implemented.
- 2005-06 – Goal line is moved to 11 feet from the end boards and blue line moved to 75 feet from end boards resulting in shortening of the neutral zone from 54 to 50 feet. Center line eliminated for 2-line passes and the tag-up offside rule re-instated. Restrictions on the goaltender playing the puck outside a designated area are introduced. The team icing the puck is not allowed substitution for the next faceoff.
And it went on and on. The only real solution that Bettman and company have come up with to try and increase goal scoring? Reduce the size of goaltenders equipment. Yeah…that’ll help. In fairness, they did increase the area behind the net, thinking a shallower net would help goal scoring. Whhuuuhhh?
And, let’s not forget the entire Atlanta Thrashers-Phoenix Coyotes-Winnipeg Jets debacle, or “how to rake one city’s taxpayers over the coals while yanking the rug out from another city’s fans”. Yes, prudent leadership and fiscal awareness at its finest.
But is Bettman solely to blame for all the problems that have occurred during his time as commissioner? Certainly not. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But the buck stops with the commissioner, and his decisions (or lack of) and direction (or lack of) are how he’ll be graded when the zamboni finally leaves the ice.
But as I stated in the opening, things haven’t been all bad. Bettman has overseen some positives during his 20-plus years in charge.
In 2014, the NHL was named “Sports League of the Year,” for the second time in four years, and 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic was named “Sports Event of the Year.” The Winter Classic, by the by, is one of the absolutely brilliant things that Bettman has instituted during his tenure. Outdoor hockey in massive venues during the dead cold of winter – who can resist?
But the bad overwhelmingly outweighs the good, and the case has definitely been made that Gary Bettman could be the worst pro sports commissioner ever. MLB fans might argue, and New Orleans Saints fans definitely would contend to the contrary, but most any hockey fan will defer to Bettman as the worst…ever.