Gary Bettman has been the NHL's commissioner since 1993. (Photo by Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)
Sometimes we in the media get accused of taking a current events issue and using it as a platform to discuss a different issue.
Well, today, that’s not me.
Today, à propos of nothing, I’d like to state for the record that it’s high time the NHL’s Gary Bettman Era came to an end.
To be precise, it’s well past high time that happened. Each and every month brings the hockey community more irrefutable evidence Bettman’s blueprint for success has led to blues as often as it has a license to print money.
For every new record in revenue the league trumpets, there’s a ‘Boots’ Del Biaggio fiasco to follow it up.
For every entertainment victory, such as the abolition of ties and the institution of the shootout, there’s a retrenchment of logic in another vital area, such as the decision to increase the number of instigator penalties necessary for a suspension.
For every success story such as the Winter Classic, there is the inexplicable, unjustifiable notion that a second team in Southern Ontario isn’t a priority.
The NHL is by far the most schizoid of all the professional sports leagues, unsure whether it is selling skill and speed, or as chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell famously noted, hatred.
And as with any organization or company, the lion’s share of the blame ought to be directed toward the guy at the top.
Now, some will point out that Bettman serves at the pleasure of the 30 team owners and thus can’t be held solely accountable for the league’s many ails. To a degree, they’re correct; if the owners truly wished to clean up the game once and for all, if they decided the epidemic of headshots to players was unacceptable and had to end, if they chose to stop the charades in South Florida or Atlanta and move franchises to locales where profit would be a foregone conclusion, they could do so this afternoon.
So, yeah, he isn’t the Abominable Spin-Man and singular plague on the sport some make him out to be. However, just think of the issues the commissioner has made a priority during his stewardship: he built up a war chest specifically designed to sustain the owners through the 2004-05 cancelled season, but only after Bob Goodenow held the league upside down by its ankles and shook out every last penny from owners’ pockets via the previous collective bargaining agreement.
During the last lockout, he also issued stern warnings to any owner who deviated from the league’s airtight PR platform – and to prove he was serious, levied a massive fine on Thrashers owner Steve Belkin for breaking the gag order. More recently, he dropped a cone of silence around the burgeoning feud between Ducks GM Brian Burke and Oilers counterpart Kevin Lowe.
But when it comes to issues of real impact and areas that could affect hockey players in every amateur or professional league, Bettman puts the gag order on himself.
He doesn’t take a leadership role in regards to the repercussions – both physical and moral – of egregious violence. He doesn’t step up and speak about the need for NHL owners to grow the game outside of their particular market (for example, via the building of small local arenas).
He plays the mime when the discussion is the challenge of selling the game to rapidly shifting North American demographics. He doesn’t demand that equipment manufacturers make their wares more affordable so disadvantaged children might have a chance to participate in the sport.
Worst of all, he can’t even acknowledge the dark clouds looming on the horizon of all major businesses soon will pour down on his operation.
He puts on a happy face and shrugs his shoulders despite the fact the Florida Panthers recently laid off a number of staff members. He grins and bears it despite the fact the NFL and NBA, both of them more successful than the NHL, were honest about the economic difficulties they will have to overcome in the near future.
You see, in Gary Bettman’s NHL, rarely is heard a discouraging word about anything at all. And that’s perhaps the man’s biggest fault; he must genuinely believe fans, employees and media are so dense, they’ll always take what he says as gospel.
The choir is much smarter than that. And Bettman’s preachings fall as flat as that Def Leppard debacle.
At this stage, the sole way Bettman can get into the public’s good graces is by stepping into the shadows for good. And I think I speak for everyone when I say we can stomach one more Pollyanna pontification from him – as long as it’s part of his resignation speech.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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