by Josh Brewster, Buffalo Sports Page NHL Expert
February 1 marked the 25th anniversary of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s first day on the job. One very good question for hockey fans to ask themselves as we mark the anniversary of his ascendance is, why are you still booing him?
Of course, it’s become hockey tradition. A thundering chorus of boos as well as inanimate objects rain down from the rafters of any NHL building upon the appearance of the commissioner. In some instances the fan response is more frightening than others, but it’s de rigueur amongst NHL fans.
Is it that Bettman is the proverbial “Big Boss Man?” Is it because he’s being held primarily responsible for the league’s lockouts? Is it because they don’t like the look on his face? Is it because he’s an American? These are good questions, because a quarter century since his appearance on the scene in 1993, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Bettman has not left the league a far better place than the one he inherited. I also have one good question for Bettman’s Buffalonian detractors—this being Buffalo Sports Page and all—but we’ll get to that later.
As the NHL’s first commissioner, he’s the most powerful man in the sport, wielding unprecedented power in service to his bosses, the owners. Myriad issues including television, franchises, the on-ice product, fighting, player safety, public relations, labor relations, the game’s place in popular culture and much more are rightly or wrongly laid at his feet. It’s his job to take the fall for all of it, whether it falls under his purview or not, and to his credit, Bettman has never whined about the catcalls.
Salaries and Lockouts:
Beginning with the most important people in the game, the players, consider that the average salary of a player has risen from roughly $370,000 prior to Bettman’s arrival to $3.2M at present (numbers per the Toronto Star). No player gripes about this situation.
The biggest cross Bettman’s ever borne–or ever will–is the occurrence of three (count ‘em!) lockouts during his tenure. He may never live the lockouts down in the eyes of fans, but consider that en route to labor peace–albeit over a tortured road–the league now has a workable salary cap system in place. Had this not occurred, it’s possible that he’d be presiding over a league heavy with big-market clubs that had squeezed the financial life out of the rest. It wouldn’t be a 31-team NHL by now. Rather, a 21-team league would be more likely.
Consider as well that when there is labor strife, the “Big Boss Man” figurehead position which Bettman occupies stands out in stark relief to the players union he faces in that the union tends to appear as a faceless mass. The players have been led by Bob Goodenow in the past (‘94-‘95 & ’04-’05 lockouts), Don Fehr (’12-’13 lockout) at present. The players have not always chosen wisely, in the case of Goodenow, for example, and despite the most recent lockout, one wonders whether Fehr and Bettman might be able to move forward more amicably in the future.
The players’ unwillingness to bend for long stretches of time contributed to the length of all of the stoppages. Remember that the players were often in no more of a rush to get anything done than were the owners. (Remember also that Goodenow led the players on a strike lasting ten days in April 1992 on the eve of the playoffs, a year prior to Bettman’s arrival.) Yes, these were owners’ lockouts, and they bear 51% of the blame at least, but it takes two to tango.
The current CBA is working, and revenue sharing is at hand. Note also that over the years, the fate of smaller-market Canadian teams contending with a fluctuating Canadian dollar has received his concern and care.
As much as it seems that Bettman brought the players to heel, Bettman’s ability to get the owners to agree to a far more equitable set of rules is most significant.
Franchise Values Soar with National, Not Regional, Game
At the time of his hire, NHL revenues were roughly $400M annually. Today, we see numbers upwards of $4.5B.
Many forget that the foray into new regions was well underway prior to Bettman’s arrival. San Jose (1991-92), Tampa Bay and the restored throwback Ottawa Senators were already in place (1992-93) beforehand. The three clubs paid $45M apiece in expansion fees.
Early in Bettman’s tenure, the Miami-based Florida Panthers came in with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks at a price of $50M each.
The Predators joined in 1998, then the league misfired with Atlanta in 1999 (the Thrashers became the restored Winnipeg Jets). Each paid $80M. In 2000, the same levy was charged to Minnesota, restored after the club moved to Dallas before Bettman’s arrival, and another $80M for Columbus, who joined to many howls of disapproval, but look at the Blue Jackets now.
Despite ownership woes through its first decade, the Nashville Predators are now viewed as a hockey stronghold. Think of it: One of the towns most-cited when withering criticism of Bettman arose is now “Smashville,” with a strong ownership group and rabid fan base cheering a well-constructed team. Notice that the perception of the Nashville experiment changed when the latest ownership group arrived. Score one for Bettman, especially after the heat he took for not allowing Jim Balsillie to move the club to Hamilton.
Bettman presided over the loss of the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, an unfortunate situation that Bettman always insisted had to do with a simple reality. “We had nowhere to go,” Bettman stated plainly to me on Duck Calls of his predicament at the time. Indeed, there was no NHL-suitable barn at hand. The loss of a Canadian market at the hands of an American commissioner was irksome to many, fairly or not. Bettman has to be credited for restoring the Winnipeg market so swiftly, using the demise of the Atlanta Thrashers (2011) to restore the Jets.
A tough patch came for Canadian fans when the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche, but it’s possible that Quebec City, too, will be restored.
It is indeed the fans and the media, not the people who run hockey franchises, who charge Bettman with being anti-Canada. Those in the know, however, understand that as Wayne Gretzky has been known to remark, Bettman has a “soft spot” for the Great White North.
Hanging on too long in the desert sands of Arizona is a legitimate criticism leveled at Bettman. Only thing there to remember is that when and if you subtract a large American market, you had better, in the name of NBC, make damn sure that its replacement is not Kitchener. No offense to Kitchener.
Add it up: Bettman restores towns rich in hockey history including Minneapolis, Winnipeg, and likely Seattle in the future. He goes for it in Nashville, Columbus and Anaheim, achieving gains there, but struggles in Miami and Arizona.
Then comes Vegas. Big win.
The Vegas Golden Knights paid $500M in expansion fees, and Tim Leiweke’s Seattle group will soon pony up $650M. That the same fees were $45M before Bettman’s tenure proves that values are soaring beyond the pace of inflation.
Judas! Cried the critics throughout the 1990s. Many believed that the league should only go where a backyard rink can be built. Many more believed that the league should know its place and only go where it had already proven relevant. The problem with that line of thinking is that television networks are not regional. Certainly no current player averaging roughly $3M+ per annum wishes it was still a regional game.
What sport would Arizona native Auston Matthews have played had the sport not spread its wings?
The On-Ice Product
Bettman’s NHL underwent a substantial rules overhaul in 2005 to increase offense, ending the dismal Dead Puck era. He also chose wisely in appointing Stephen Walkom as head of officiating, who instituted an important clampdown on hooking and holding/obstruction.
Some serious missteps in discipline have occurred in terms of boarding and head shots, but that is changing with time with the onset of the Department of Player Safety. An egregious misstep occurred in the treatment of Todd Bertuzzi, whose actions left Steve Moore brain-damaged in 2004. Bertuzzi should have been tossed from the league for good, but the league let him off with a lengthy suspension that was in effect shortened by the 2004-05 lockout.
Fighting is on the decline, which is a hot debate that won’t go away, but note that Bettman has largely left that issue in the hands of the hockey ops guys. Remember also that the 1992 instigator rule, which many old school types don’t like, predated Bettman. Regardless where you stand on fighting, the fact that the game is younger and faster now, accommodating far fewer enforcer-types is a welcome change.
The league has been dealing too slowly with the issue of the size of goaltender equipment mostly due to suppliers being unable to deliver the new gear to NHL goalies on time. Bettman must take responsibility for this, but this change is coming. Bettman’s crew should get credit for tackling the issue, which is the last outpost prior to increasing the size of the nets, which would be an unwelcome change, tearing at the fabric of the game, which Bettman’s NHL has thankfully avoided.
Faster, younger, more skilled. Nothing for Bettman to apologize for on that front.
TV in the United States
Bettman was charged with increasing hockey’s prominence on the television dial and he should be applauded.
Those who grew up in hockey-mad Buffalo in the 1970s and 1980s were always treated to Hockey Night in Canada on CBC and Leafs broadcasts during the week in addition, of course, to the Sabres broadcasts we’d regularly receive. If you had cable, you’d see a whole lot of Rangers, Islanders and later, Devils as well. We were spoiled in WNY. Anyone who traveled to other U.S. NHL cities through that era remembers that the locals were lucky to receive their home team and not much more. Maybe an additional USA Network or ESPN game once a week, but that was it.
Bettman’s insistence that hockey be sold nationally irked many, but who’s laughing now that the NHL has a long-term deal with NBC for hundreds of millions and a multi-billion dollar deal with Rogers in Canada? What’s more, the NHL now has all of its playoff games available for U.S. audiences on television.
Remember also that it was Bettman who smartly told ESPN to basically go pound sand after the 2004-05 lockout, throwing in with an unknown OLN (Outdoor Life Network) which became Versus, which then became NBC Sports Network. The move to OLN drew howls of laughter from the critics. Who’s laughing now that that NBC has made the NHL a priority?
This is an easy one. The Winter Classic and other outdoor games are a smashing success. The league took a risk and won big, competing successfully with college football for New Year’s Day with spectacles that may be the Bettman era’s finest accomplishment. Nowadays, the only argument over the outdoor games is how many we’d like to see, not whether we’d like to see them. We always tune in, as do tons of people who don’t watch much hockey, if at all. Grand slam.
The Bettman era has seen the NHL appear at five (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014). 2018 won’t happen, but it’s justifiable. During the next CBA negotiations, the players will likely include Olympic participation. They’ve learned to not take their participation for granted. Since the 2022 Games are in China, and the league is already holding preseason games there, expect a return of the NHL. And for his part, Bettman’s NHL is right on expecting the IOC and IIHF to pony up far more money for the only major pro sport willing to shut down for three weeks to accommodate the Games.
A Question for Buffalonians
After John Rigas’ criminal misgivings destroyed the Sabres franchise in 2002, Bettman stood fast, feeling that the Sabres’ faithful had done nothing to deserve such a loss and Rigas’ misdeeds were the problem. It was Bettman’s insistence on staying in Buffalo and finding a solution which led to the emergence of Tom Golisano, and years later, Terry Pegula–both of whom deserve praise for preserving the club.
Imagine if you will–as Rod Serling might say–here comes Gary Bettman, walking out on the ice at KeyBank Center, getting ready to present the Stanley Cup to the team for the first time. Knowing that he’s the primary reason why your team isn’t based in Portland or Seattle, long ago acquired by, say, Microsoft’s Paul Allen, one question remains.
Why would you boo?
Read Josh Brewster’s thoughts on the NHL trade deadline.