Gary Bettman has been commissioner of the NHL since 1993. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
This may come as a shock, but there are some feats Gary Bettman is simply incapable of.
Connecting to the average hockey fan on a base emotional level is one of them. So is conducting a press conference in which he doesn’t either attempt to con attendees – my all-time favorite example is when he called speculation on the financial disarray of the Phoenix Coyotes “irresponsible reporting” – or condescend to them.
However, in the name of responsible reporting, you have to give the NHL commissioner credit when he gets stuff right. And last Friday afternoon, when Bettman conducted his annual state-of-the-league address, he came correct on a couple matters.
The first was his announcement of a second outdoor game for the 2010-11 season; last played in 2003 in Edmonton, the reanimated Heritage Classic will take place Feb. 20 in Calgary (pending NHLPA approval that should be a mere formality) and acts as a panacea for what most assume will be the perpetual absence of Canadian teams in the now-annual Winter Classic game.
The second thing Bettman did right was to unveil another research and development camp, which will be held under the stewardship of Brendan Shanahan Aug. 18 and 19, in Toronto.
Many have argued for a long time that an ongoing R&D process is not only beneficial, but also vital to the NHL as it strives to stay in touch with the modern sports consumer. And putting Shanahan – one of the key figures in the post-lockout changes that were implemented in the game – in charge of it was likely one of the main reasons the league hired the retired star as its vice-president of hockey and business development last winter.
The nature of the two moves underscore a theme I think Bettman’s image-makers would be wise to note.
Just about any positive press the commissioner has received in recent years has come when he introduced – and more importantly, followed through on – progressive notions.
The crackdown on obstruction was a forward-thinking concept, as was the shootout and the idea of regular-season games being played in spectacular non-hockey venues. Similarly, the NHL’s success in mining social media for fan interest and revenue also has garnered virtually nothing but raves from every corner.
Conversely, it is only when Bettman digs in his heels and aligns himself with hockey’s paleo community that he earns the general public’s enmity. (Look no further than the NHL’s ongoing commitment to laissez-faire rule enforcement and supplementary discipline for an example of such.)
There’s no doubt Bettman will become the darling du jour of Quebecers and Manitobans when he relocates franchises to Quebec City and Winnipeg (an unfolding change of philosophy rooted not in fuzzy-hearted nationalism, but economic pragmatism).
Yet for every league move that appears magnanimous in nature, Bettman and the owners who direct him can always be counted on to come up with a concept as crass as it is shortsighted.
For example, when the Coyotes, Thrashers, Panthers, Islanders or other teams run out of new ownership options, Bettman will have little choice but to move some back to Canada.
But when that happens, it is extremely likely Bettman will also introduce (a) a second NHL franchise for Southern Ontario; and (b) a $300-400 million expansion fee for that new organization, to be divvied up amongst owners unconcerned with a product that dilutes when the league increases its number of teams.
And that old-school, craven money grab will nauseate observant hockey fans to no end, even after they see unmitigated joy in the eyes of old Nordiques and Jets enthusiasts reveling in Bettman’s forced atonement.
One step up, one step back: that’s the signature story of the Gary Bettman Era.
He isn’t the angry accusatory monkey that lords over the nightmares of paranoid hockey fans. But he’ll also never be Simba-esque in serving the pride over the prideful.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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