Today is a fairly significant day in hockey history and NHL history. If you've been circling February 1 on your calendar for nearly two decades, you know one of two things: (1) it's most likely a birthday or anniversary you should remember, or (2) it's the anniversary of the appointment of Gary Bettman as NHL Commissioner. Both could be fairly important to you if you're Mark Recchi, Patrick O'Sullivan, or Tommy Salo as all three men celebrate their birthdays today, but I'm more concerned with the last 18 years in the life of Gary Bruce Bettman on this anniversary of his appointment as NHL Commissioner.
There is a lot that we can pin on Gary Bettman in terms of taking the game to new lows. Let's review some of the problems that the game has seen over the last 18 years. And this list could grow exponentially if we do this review on a market-by-market basis.
- The FoxTrax puck. That debuted in 1996 at the 46th NHL All-Star Game in Boston. Surprisingly, Fox somehow made it last until the first game of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. I'm pretty sure no hockey fan will let Bettman live this one down.
- After seeing the San Jose Sharks join the NHL for the 1991-92 season, Gary Bettman goes on a tear, allowing expansion franchises to pop up in any major market with a covered arena. Since February 1993, we've seen franchises pop up in Anaheim, Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, and Minneapolis. We also saw Minneapolis lose their original team to Dallas, Quebec City lose their team to Denver, Hartford lose their team to Raleigh, and Winnipeg lose their team to Phoenix. Outside of the Wild, are any of those teams making money?
- Fans have endured two work stoppages as the NHL players went on strike for the start of the 1994-95 season, and we saw the entire 2004-05 season wiped out due to the owners locking out the players. And we're staring down the barrel of the guns again as the CBA expires at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season.
- Fans and players were absolutely outraged at the NHL's decision to walk away from ESPN and set up shop on the unheard-of Outdoor Life Network. While OLN transitioned into Versus, NHL coverage in the US is still rarely found on widespread cable television, and the league has been slow to recover any television revenue and television airspace since walking away from the "World Wide Leader".
- The NHL Winter Classic is now the showcase event every year for the NHL in the US. Before the Winter Classic, the NHL had nothing to celebrate in the lower forty-eight, and people had no reason to tune in. The Winter Classic, if nothing else, has brought fans back and attracted new fans to the sport.
- The NHL, unlike the other three major sports, have embraced and endorsed new technology. The NHL has branched out to fans via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to give the game more access to the techno-savvy fans, and fans of the game have responded in kind by blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking all sorts of information and photos. Hockey has taken advantage of the social media craze like no other sport.
- The NHL introduced some changes that have opened up the game for offensive stars after watching them suffer for years. No longer is obstruction and interference a way of life, the two-line pass is ancient history, and the shootout allows for more creativity and excitement in the game. If anyone thinks that the game is worse now than before the 2004-05 canceled season, they simply aren't watching the same game I am.
- While moving at a snail's pace, the NHL is slowly gaining on Major League Baseball and the NFL in terms of attracting and retaining fans. While there is no chance that the NHL will ever knock those two sports off the mountain in the US, any gains are certainly positive. Through its agreements with Versus and NBC, the NHL is inching its way back onto the sports landscape in the US. While it's taking a lot longer than promised, Bettman is doing what he was initially hired to do.
- The NHL needs to find a way to protect players' heads. The debates about head trauma will continue until the end of time until someone finally puts his foot down and says "enough". If the Canadian Hockey League can institute a no-contact rule on checks to the head, and they still produce some of the best players in hockey history, it seems like a no-brainer (excuse the pun) for the NHL to follow suit.
- The NHL needs to continue to work with the players in terms of coming to an equitable agreement for both sides. The NHLPA is unhappy with the escrow amounts while the NHL brags of record profits, so there will have to be some bargaining done on both sides in order for labour peace to continue.
- The NHL needs to continue to make itself available to the fans. The fans love players with personality - Paul Bissonnette ring any bells? The NHL and NHLPA need to keep that connection with the fans. I've always maintained that the NHL players are the most accessible athletes of the four major sports, and there's no reason for this to stop. Maintain and build that relationship with the fans, and they'll reward you for it.
- The NHL needs to continue, if I can continue this trend, to work with its partners. NBC, CBC, HBO, Versus, TSN, and Sirius XM all have major stakes in producing high-quality NHL broadcasts, and these relationships need to continue on all fronts. Spreading the NHL far and wide across many networks means that the game reaches more and more people, and there's no better way to attract new fans than to have them watch the game.
Given those two options, I'll happily stay the course for the time being.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!