I'm not an adjudicator in any way, shape, or form, but I think I've watched enough hockey and been a fan for long enough to know that what he was asked to do when he was hired may or may not have been accomplished depending on the criteria. Of course, anyone's job description will change over time, but the main points of the job should always remain the same. And it's here where I'm going to narrow the scope and judge Gary Bettman on his body of work.
I'm basing my adjudication on the job description listed in the February 2, 1993 edition of The New York Times from an article written by Joe Lapointe. Mr. Lapointe clearly identifies what Mr. Bettman has to do as Commissioner in the following passage,
"Put a stop to labor unrest; sell the product in television's mainstream marketplace; change the violent image of the game; curb salary inflation; force enlightened self-interest on reluctant, old-fashioned owners; expand contacts with European developmental leagues and markets; settle the divisive issue of possible Olympic involvement, and help launch several new expansion teams."At the time that Gary Bettman took over the league, there were 24 teams after having expanded into San Jose, Ottawa, and Tampa Bay in the previous years. Therefore, the success of those franchises will not factor into Mr. Bettman's overall grade for his work. What I will do, however, is look at each of the identified tasks that Mr. Lapointe pointed out in his article, and grade him accordingly in terms of the job done by my standards. And if you know anything about me, I hold my standards very high.
With all that being said, let's begin to look at how Mr. Bettman has fared in the previous two decades of work as NHL Commissioner.
Let's not kid ourselves here as this could be the one thing that defines Gary Bettman as the NHL Commissioner once his time is done. Under Gary Bettman, we've now had our third strike/lockout, we've lost an entire season of hockey while the owners and players squabbled, and we're looking at another long and calculated work stoppage again from what both sides are saying. If one work stoppage is too many, three times that amount is an absolute travesty in terms of leadership and promoting unity between the league and the union. Putting a stop to labor unrest? It's only become much worse under Gary Bettman as salaries have escalated and owners can't stop their management teams from overpaying players to strap on the skates.
This grade is solely dependent upon what one defines as a mainstream marketplace. Make no mistake that the CBC has done an outstanding job over the years with Hockey Night In Canada to make it a Canadian institution each and every week. The arrival of TSN, especially in the last decade, have made junior hockey and NHL hockey into incredible properties for the network, and the ratings for those broadcasts are still on the rise. In short, selling hockey in Canada is like selling water in the Sahara - it's not selling as much as it is just feeding the demand.
Where Gary's mark will be significantly affected in with the US networks. ESPN was all over the Montreal-Los Angeles final in 1993 with Gretzky, McNall, and Melrose representing the impossible dream: a Stanley Cup championship parade south of the Mason-Dixon line. After seeing hockey's ratings drop with the trap and left-wing lock introduced and games slowing to a crawl, ESPN walked away from paying insane amounts of money to the NHL to carry broadcasts that got them less advertising dollars than the Westminster Dog Show. In short, losing ESPN lost a pile of exposure the league needed.
The NHL decided to partner with Fox, but that experiment crashed and burned upon the introduction of the FoxTrax puck. Universally mocked for their "invention", Fox and the NHL parted ways. ABC was in the mix for a while when Michael Eisner was still excited about owning an NHL team, but the numbers gave them reason to walk away as well. When the NHL finally got Versus onside and having it become NBC Sports, Gary saved a little face after taking his lumps over no one being able to find Versus, but NBC Sports is still having problems on some service providers and it isn't as widely subscribed to as ESPN. In short, viewer numbers are rising, but they aren't high enough yet for ESPN to muscle NBC off the game.
Changing the violent image of the game is easier said than done. For a game based on violence in a large way, there were some things that the NHL needed gone in order to market the game much better. The introduction of the instigator rule has long been blamed for the rise in injuries, but it's time we look at all the factors.
The instigator rule was a catalyst in a number of other changes. With less fighting, there was more clutching-and-grabbing. With less fighting, there were more open ice hits and heavy checks along the boards. With less fighting, there was more reason to take a run at a scoring threat in order to slow the competition. While clutching and grabbing won't necessarily injure an opponent, the bigger hits and more dangerous plays certainly will have an impact on player safety.
By cutting fighting numbers, the NHL has trumpeted its "less violent image". In reality, the number of concussions is sky-rocketing, the number of injuries has increased, and the number of careers ended by injury is certainly on the rise.
If the NHL wants to say that less fighting is equal to less violence, then that's fine. They can certainly make that claim. But the truth of the matter is that the violent acts have simply shifted in the paradigm. No longer are players spilling blood with fists, they are instead scrambling brains with elbows and shoulders. Downplaying the significance of the number of concussions is an absolute disgusting way to "clean up the sport's violent image".
This one doesn't need much discussion. Salaries now average around the $2 million mark, or double Bobby Orr's "million-dollar contract" over four years. Salaries continue to rise, and the NHL has encouraged, rather than hindered, that progress. In short, Gary has failed to curb the rampant rise in player's salaries. Some growth was expected, but salaries are still out of control.
The problem with "reluctant, old-fashioned owners" is that they have the money and usually sit on very lucrative properties. Bill Wirtz ran the Chicago Blackhawks into the ground with his tight-fisted ways, and it took his death to remove him from the NHL Board of Governors. It's not that these men aren't open to new ideas, they simply aren't open to risking the money they've made from their "time-tested and true ways" of running a hockey club.
Indeed, there are some excellent stories of turning around a franchise, an Chicago is one of them. The Blackhawks drafted well, they reconnected with their fans, and they filled the building again as Rocky Wirtz took over and revamped the whole hockey operation. There just aren't enough of these "rags to riches" stories in the NHL to which you can pin your hopes.
I'll be straightforward on this one: the NHL has no developmental European league to speak of nor do they have any solid agreements with any league in Europe where players can grow and learn. They have a deal with the KHL not to poach contracts that can be described as "amicable", but that might be stretching the agreement. In short, the NHL may play games in Europe to start seasons, but they certainly aren't giving back to the leagues that accommodate the NHL teams that make the trip.
While it's nice for players like Teemu Selanne, Henrik Lundqvist, and Zdeno Chara to play in front of friends and family in an NHL game back home, the NHL is there to promote itself first before helping anyone else grow their games.
The idea of having the NHL players at the Olympics has been nothing but good for the NHL and hockey in general. People love watching their homegrown heroes battling other countries for hockey supremacy. And while the Olympic Games off North American soil haven't gone well for the North American teams, more people are tuning in to see the games being played. In turn, the NHL is seeing more people watching the game when it's an Olympic year.
However, there is a dark cloud under the silver lining. NHL owners have been grumbling about allowing their assets to play in the Olympics with the possibility of having them injured or tired for the stretch run. Honestly, if the men you work for don't see the positives of having a global audience watching their players performing incredible feats, you're not doing a very good job at selling the game to the very people who fund not only the game you're selling, but the paycheck you cash week in and week out.
There's no doubt that expanding from 24 teams to 30 teams was a monumental task, but the owners wanted to capture that staggering TV market in Florida, Nashville, Anaheim, Minnesota, Atlanta, and Columbus... yeah, the argument for TV numbers kind of loses its pizzazz. This was about the lucrative expansion fees that the owners saw, and the opportunity to prop the current franchises up at the expense of the very team they were allowing into the club.
All of the expansion teams struggled out of the gates, and that's to be expected. But there are some expansion teams pushing into their second decade of existence with single-digit totals for playoff games played. That's not a good record if you're looking to attract potential billionaires to buy into the club.
What's worse is that Atlanta no longer exists. The expansion team that I believe Gary Bettman wanted to succeed so he could point to the NHL's past and say "I told you so" failed miserably once again. The team is now the Winnipeg Jets, and Atlanta may never see an NHL team again after this last disastrous ownership fiasco.
Ownership fiascoes have dogged the other expansion teams as well. From fraudulent owners trying to buy into the Predators to Jim Balsillie thinking he can simply buy any team in whatever means he felt, from the many owners tossing money at the Florida Panthers to the fans revolting in Columbus over shoddy management and ownership, and from the owner of the Predators jumping ship to buy the Minnesota Wild to the Walt Disney Company simply being done with hockey, Gary Bettman has seen more ownership changes for the expansion teams than the rest of the NHL combined. That's a horrific record to have hanging on your shoulders as the NHL Commissioner.
While the Anaheim Ducks have won a Stanley Cup, the other five expansion teams have had varied levels of success in the playoffs. Minnesota has seen some success, and Nashville has become a stalwart for playoff hockey recently. Florida looks like they may be turning the corner to become a possible playoff team, but Columbus and Atlanta/Winnipeg are still trying to piece together any sort of regular season success.
I understand that expansion success isn't immediate, but the NHL is literally setting expansion teams up to fail with their outrageous expansion fees, pitiful expansion drafts, and murky ownership situations. With it taking approximately a decade to establish some kind of success, the NHL has to be aware that the quick fix of expansion can lead to many problems down the road.
Overall, I have to say that Gary Bettman's tenure hasn't been all bad. He's made the game watchable again by allowing committees to make smart recommendations. He's letting a former player crack down on his former brethren in terms of keeping the game safe. He's relocating teams back to traditional hockey markets, and there's a good chance that the game will eventually right itself.
But the labor issues, especially the one we're in right now, is caused by having little foresight. No one at the NHL Offices seem to consider the decisions made today one year from now, five years from now, and ten years from now. No one at the NHL Offices seems to have a "worst-case scenario" plan in case their decisions lead them down the wrong track. And no one, it seems, has any foresight for what the labor negotiations today will lead to in the future.
While I'm not expecting Gary Bettman to have a crystal ball on his desk where he can predict all the hurdles, I do expect the eight main points above to be closer to success than failure after twenty years on the job.
The fact that they are not leads me to Gary's final grade of D-. He's getting the job done, but just barely. And that's just not good enough for a billion-dollar industry.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!