Gary Bettman has been commissioner of the NHL since February of 1993. (Getty Images)
Gary Bettman learned long before Chris Chelios made his veiled threats during the last lockout what it was like to live with a target on his back. And you’d have to think that part of his $7.5 million-a-year compensation package is to take the heat from players, fans and media types for doing the bidding of his employers.
And let’s face it. Bettman often makes it easy to dislike him. He frequently comes across as condescending and arrogant and after 20 years on the job, still can’t shake the fact that he never took a stick in the chin. There are times when he makes taking potshots at him as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
And this is one of those times. The Blame Bettman Bandwagon, which was already bursting at the seams, has been gaining legions of members by the day. It has been very convenient to blame Bettman for everything from global warming to New Coke these days, to the point where it would probably be a good idea for Bettman to ignore Twitter. (Actually, it would be a good idea for everyone to ignore Twitter, but that’s a rant for another day.)
Of course, you’d expect it from fans who are bitter about not having the NHL and can’t get over the fact that Bettman isn’t from Moose Jaw. But as is always the case in times like this when perspective is an early casualty, you’re getting it from people who should know better.
People such as Teemu Selanne, who recently wrote on a blog that Bettman, “is certainly the NHL’s most hated person.” Or John-Michael Liles, who tweeted in all his grammatically correct glory that he, “Just wanted to send out a big congrats to gray (sic) bettman for his 3rd consecutive work stoppage. Impressive stats for someone w no athletic skill.”
So, let’s see here. At last count Selanne has made almost $70 million over the course of his NHL career, which began just a couple of months before Bettman took office. At that time, the NHL had revenues of about $400 million. Now they’re at $3.3 billion. You’d have to be a complete dullard not to realize that Bettman had something to do with that and the subsequent pay raises Selanne received because of those increases. And Liles? Please. Here’s a guy who has made almost $20 million over the course of his career and last year signed a four-year deal worth $15.5 million. Not bad for a guy who has had no idea what it’s like to be a plus player the past four seasons.
It’s been very fashionable for the players to fault the NHL and the owners for creating the top-heavy, long-term contracts that have become such a large issue, saying nobody forced the owners to sign them. Well, if anyone knows of a player out there who turned one of those deals down for the good of the game, please let us know. And to blame Bettman for those deals is ridiculous. The reality is that Bettman has hated those legal circumventions of the collective bargaining agreement since Day 1 and it was the owners of the teams who couldn’t help themselves. But he also knows that if he had ever tried to do anything to prevent teams from signing them, the players would have rightly accused the owners of collusion.
But people don’t seem to get that. What’s worse is you have guys who haven’t even earned a regular spot in the league now joining in the chorus. Joe Morrow recently tweeted that Bettman should be, “commissioner of a different sport like knitting.” Connor Carrick tweeted, “I really don’t like the guy,” and Jason Zucker chimed in with, “How does Bettman now have 3 lockouts under his name? Common denominator here!” (Zucker neglected to mention that Bettman was a driving force behind awarding an expansion team to Minnesota, which just happens to be the place where Zucker will play as an NHLer.)
There’s a pretty good chance that Joe Morrow, Connor Carrick and Jason Zucker will all be terrific NHL players some day and nobody is arguing they shouldn’t have the right to express their opinions, but they might want to think before they go off on the guy who has run the league for the past two decades. The fact that some of those comments have been taken down indicates that someone with a modicum of common sense managed to get through to these guys.
But it remains in vogue to slag Bettman for simply doing his job. For example, people often point to Bettman’s failed Sunbelt expansion. But guess how many southern cities have received expansion teams under Bettman’s watch? Two, Nashville and Atlanta. Tampa Bay and San Jose were already in the league and the Minnesota North Stars had relocated to Dallas before he was hired. The Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim had already been accepted into the league in a move that was orchestrated by soon-to-be-convicted felon Bruce McNall. It’s true Bettman did little to stop the move of teams to Raleigh, Phoenix and Denver, but we’re going to go out on a limb and speculate that those moves had more to do with the previous owners than the NHL head office.
But Bettman largely gets the blame. He should be used to it by now. After all, doing your job for the real people who deserve the blame does have its downsides.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.