Well, we are three plus months into this disaster and we have no positive sign that things are going to get better any time soon. My hopes for a Christmas miracle appear to have been dashed as the NHL and the players’ union have still not attempted opening up a new line of dialogue since the sudden break down of events of December 13th. This complete farce of a lockout has found a lot of us fans aiming the focus of our rage at the head of the NHL, Gary Bettman. During the latest breakdown Bettman was asked how he felt about the current state of the lockout. “It’s absolutely something that torments me.” he offered. (You could imagine the number of rolled eyes, directed expletives, and creative hand gestures that were pointed at televisions all over North America.)
I am not exactly Bettman’s #1 fan, but I have heard he has a couple of fans out there. Granted, most of them are owners or are working in some capacity for a club’s ownership. “He’s brilliant. He’s mastered the breadth of the industry, and it’s a broad industry, with lots of detail,” said Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke. Burke had the post currently being held by Bill Daly from 1993 to 1998. He communicates wonderfully with the owners. That’s a big part of his job. He’s probably on the phone with 10 different owners every day. He was very fair when I worked for him. A born teacher.”
I often have to remind myself that Bettman does receive his marching orders from the owners, and it his attempts to carry out their will which has led us to this point. While Bettman has been the focal point for our anger,(although our own Jeremy Jacobs is doing his best to match the commissioner) he has been doing his job.
Bettman’s first day on the job was February 1st, 1993. His first press conference gave hockey fans a taste of what was coming. “I don’t think I have to be a hockey guy. I wasn’t hired to be a general manager. I certainly wasn’t hired to be a coach, and certainly not as a player.” When Bettman took over as NHL commissioner, the NHL’s revenues were under half a billion dollars(US). The NHL had a passionate fan base, but it had limited television and national coverage(like major league soccer does today). Bettman(regardless of my personal feelings) brought the NHL into the national consciousness. He made several deals with the major networks that brought the NHL into people’s lives.(Mine amongst them.)
He has been one of the primary forces to increase NHL revenues by over 600% in the last twenty years. However, as the face of the owners in this lockout, he has been vilified by the fan base. American hockey fans do not like Bettman, but from what I’ve seen on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites the Canadian fan base want to burn him in effigy. (Some Canadians I know have stated they’re willing to fore go the proxy, and try to cook the genuine article.)
He still has defenders though. “I wish Gary was perceived more fairly than he is in Canada because he’s a great guy, a brilliant guy, and he’s really been good for our league,” offered Burke in the defense of Bettman. “You have to look at the metrics of this league from when Gary took over to where we are now, and he’s been a marvelous commissioner.” His former boss, NBA commissioner David Stern has also commented on the level of vitriol Bettman has absorbed during his tenure. “He handles it as well as anyone possibly could. He understands that comes with the job, as we all do….That’s why it’s important that you believe in what you’re doing and have the support of your owners and you know that’s what they expect you to do.”
It was Bettman’s call that brought hockey to the Sun Belt with very mixed results. He currently holds the vote for the Phoenix Coyotes as proxy as there is still no permanent owner. (Personally, I think it’s a conflict of interest, but someone needs to vote for them.) It was his staunch defense of a team that was hemorrhaging cash that led them to receivership. For all the the blunders made in Phoenix, Bettman did make some positive corrections in the Sun Belt. The Atlanta Thrashers were another Sun Belt club that was suffering losses and poor turnout. Bettman was crucial to help facilitate the club’s move back to Canada, and brought the Winnipeg Jets back from the dead. The Dallas Stars (formerly the Minnesota North Stars) were also part of Bettman’s legacy.
Bettman feels bad about the lockout, we feel bad about the lockout, and so do the players. As for the owners, it’s a crap shoot. Some of them want the game back, and are willing to negotiate. As I said earlier, Bettman isn’t one of my favorites. However, we do need to look at him in the the total light of what he has done over the depth of his career here. While I can’t thank him for this current mess, we do need to thank him for making the NHL part of the national milieu for professional sports.
I still feel a little soiled defending him though.