Tuesday 1 February 2011

Today In Hockey History

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".
Again, we could probably spend an hour or six listing all of the problems that the NHL has seen over the last 18 years, but these are, in my view, some of the more glaring problems that the NHL has seen. However, not all is bad, and Gary Bettman and his team have done some absolutely positive things as well.
  • 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.
Of course, there are still some major issues that the NHL needs to tackle, and they would be well-advised to solve these issues as soon as possible. No sports league on the planet is perfect, of course, but solving these major issues will put the NHL in a very good position to continue to make inroads in the southern US while holding strong in the northern US markets and Canada.
  • 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.
Overall, there have been turbulent times and happy times for the NHL through the 18 years that Gary Bettman has been at the helm of this ship. Going forward, there will be more problems and more joy as the league continues to grow and thrive. I'm not saying that Gary Bettman has been a savior for the NHL in any way, but you have to remember that things could always be worse than what they currently are.

Given those two options, I'll happily stay the course for the time being.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Jim BC said...

Teebz - although the chance of it happening are close to nil, it's time for Bettman to go. I've never liked the little weasel and to this day cannot believe he is running the greatest league in professional sports.

I have a large amount of items I could add to your list of problems that have arisen in the NHL during his 18 years at the top but I won't go into the details. Yes, some of them would have happened anyway but regardless of this, I am still not a fan.

I mean for the love of Pete, he pronounces it "hackey"!!!

BTW - did you see the Habs/Caps game last night? Caps in white at home! Best jersey matchup in a long time...

Teebz said...

Loved last night's game! White at home is something I think should be standard in hockey.

As for Bettman, his pronunciation is certainly American, but he has taken the game in a new direction, and set it up for a potentially lucrative future.

I'm not completely trusting of the guy, but if the old guard were still running the NHL, it may not be on the rise at this time.

Again, he's not without a myriad of problems, but Bettman is slowly moving the game in the right direction from my point of view.

Captain Canuck said...

oh, my friend, I see we disagree on something. Not Bettman, he has to go. Idiot. Plain and simple.

But about contact to the head... to quote Chris Pronger, and several players are on board with this, as they spoke out last HNIC, "only an idiot would ban contact to the head... when you skate with the puck, you lead with your head, and if I make contact with you in a clean, legal way, where am I going to hit you?" Basically Pronger was commenting on the fact that unless everyone in the league is at least 6'4", people are going to get drilled, in LEGAL hits. It's unavoidable because of the height difference. And, being over 6'4" myself, I agree.
You cannot take out head contact. Period.
Take out the intent. Huge difference.

Teebz said...

While everyone says he has to go, who exactly would you like to see running the league? I get that he's made mistakes, but all four commissioners across the major sports have.

As for Pronger's excuse, I'm not taking anything away his size or his ability to lay a big hit. However, if he can't lay off the head, he'll be penalized. If the CHL can make it happen, and guys like Tyler Myers had no issue conforming, what makes Pronger so special?

calvin12 said...

Who would I rather see running the league? A steaming pile of dog $h!t would be better. His mistakes are huge (not letting Pho to Hamilton),and his pluses are almost all minor (twitter, yawn). And while the shootout is fun to watch it is *no way* to end a game, may as well have a home run contest after the 10 inning in baseball. I'm not a fan of 4 on 4 OT either but I can accept that. 3 point games make the standings a joke, hey look 25 teams are "over" 500 (if you ignore all the SO losses) Go back to 2 point games, play at least 10 for OT, 4 or 5 a side,than call it a tie. If you insist on no ties, then OT, shootout and the loser gets 0, not 1. And go back to the historic names, hockey is a game that evokes its lore, keep the history. get down to 28 or up to 32 teams, with 4 divisions, top 4 get in like the old days and you need to fight off 2 rounds in your division first. Those made for amazing playoffs in every round.

Teebz said...

Phoenix not moving to Hamilton was actually a pretty good idea. Jim Balsillie is not someone who I want sitting on the NHL BoG.

Say what you want about the "minor" advances he's made, Calvin, but progress always start small. After all, rivers start out as a trickle of water.

If you want to go back to the traditional NHL of 20 years ago, we can, although we'd have to eliminate a large number of things that make the game better today.

Progress involves making mistakes. That's why it's so rewarding when you actually make progress. And Bettman has made mistakes - I've admitted as much. But the upswing is that he's done some very innovative things, and that's why hockey is becoming more mainstream.

calvin12 said...

It does not have to be Jim Balsillie, it could be anyone, Pho can't support a team. Eliminating the 2 line pass and bringing back delayed offside are great things but those are the competition committee not Bettman.

Teebz said...

The competition committee makes recommendations to the BoG for changes to improve the game. The BoG vote on whether to accept the changes.

Before Bettman - no competition committee.