In Defense of Gary Bettman.

Most NHL fans despise NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and want him fired, but is that criticism justified?

The current NHL CBA negotiations have once again highlighted the animosity many NHL fans feel toward league commissioner Gary Bettman.

Throughout his nearly twenty-year tenure as commissioner, Bettman has been the target of the fans’ wrath, due in no small part to the two lockouts which have already occurred on his watch, and the possibility of a third looming on the horizon.

The lockouts, however, aren’t the only reasons behind the fans’ rancor toward Bettman. Expansion, reduction of fighting, taking teams out of Canada, lack of a TV contract with ESPN, and robbing the game of its excitement are also among their grievances.

But are these criticisms valid?

Bettman is often blamed for the NHL’s rapid expansion in the 1990s, especially into the southern United States, but the league’s expansion during that decade was well under way by the time he was hired as league commissioner in December 1992, and officially began his duties on February 1, 1993.

In 1989, under the plan called “A Vision of the Nineties”, the NHL Board of Governors decided it would add seven new franchises in the 1990s, with San Jose, Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Atlanta cited among the potential locations.

The San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning were already in existence when Bettman came in, while the Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers came into being in December 1992, prior to his officially taking over the commissioner’s role.

Following Bettman’s hiring, only four more teams – the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild – were added to the league.

The worst that can be said of his contributions to NHL expansion is he facilitated a process which was well underway before he took over as commissioner.

Some Canadian-based critics claimed the relocation of the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado and the original Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix was part of Bettman’s grand design to grow the game in America at the expense of its Canadian markets.

The reality, however, is no prospective buyers could be found willing and able to purchase those respective franchises and keep them in Quebec City and Winnipeg. It was either sell those clubs to willing buyers (even though they wished to relocate those teams), or fold them and stage a dispersal draft of their players.

Some Canadian fans continue to buy into the myth of Bettman as “anti-Canadian”, yet he tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the Canadian government to provide tax breaks for struggling Canadian-based franchises at the turn of this century.

Bettman was also behind a revenue-sharing scheme in the final years of the last CBA to assist those same struggling Canadian teams, and worked to keep the Senators in Ottawa after the club went bankrupt in 2003.

If Bettman is “anti-Canadian”, he has a weird way of showing it.

As for those who point to his blocking the sale of the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie as proof of “anti-Canadian” bias,  those sales were blocked because Balsillie’s stated intent to relocate those teams to Southern Ontario (Hamilton), without consultation or approval of the NHL Board of Governors, doomed his efforts. It had nothing to do with bias against Canada, and everything to do with the proper way of conducting business.

Bettman is often blamed for “the instigator rule” (designed to reduce fighting in the NHL), which has proven unpopular with fans of “old time hockey” and those who just enjoy hockey fights. However, that rule was implemented in 1992, before Bettman took over as league commissioner.

Some may argue he’s responsible for that rule remaining on the books, but Bettman cannot just arbitrarily decide which rules remain and which ones are chucked out. Such changes are usually recommended by the league’s general managers, and those recommendations go before a competition committee for approval.

Fighting in the NHL was down in 2011-12, but it remains to be seen if that is indicative of a trend. Since 2000-01, the number of fights per season in the NHL has fluctuated, rising some years, falling in others. That, however, has little to do with the commissioner.

One theory for the recent decline is NHL coaches now prefer their goons to be more than just one-dimensional knuckle-chuckers. They must possess the skills to play a regular shift, as well as know when to pick their battles. Another is the declining tolerance for “staged fights”, particularly among NHL general managers.

Bettman got raked over the coals back in 2005 for not-re-signing with ESPN and instead inking a deal with OLN, later known as “Versus”.

What was overlooked at the time was ESPN tried to under-bid what it had previously paid the league to broadcast its games, which was rejected unanimously by the league board of governors. OLN’s bid, meanwhile, was higher than ESPN’s. Granted, it wasn’t a great deal at the time, but it was better than nothing. The league also managed a limited deal with NBC for free coverage of its games on Saturday afternoons during the second half of the season, plus some playoff coverage.

OLN/Versus was eventually taken over by NBC Sports, which recently signed a new $200 million deal with the NHL, including free coverage of games on NBC. The rise of rival sports networks has worked out in the NHL’s favor, providing them other options besides ESPN. Bettman’s gamble with OLN/Versus appears to be working out.

It should also be noted that, since the last lockout, part of the reason for the league’s steady increase in revenue has been its ability to tap into new revenue streams, including “new media” of satellite radio and the internet, and staging an annual outdoor New Year’s Day “Winter Classic”. These moves also helped improve the league’s visibility in the American sports market, despite the absence of an ESPN contract, for which Bettman deserves praise.

Some fans blame Bettman for the NHL product becoming boring, but the increase in NHL attendance and television ratings since 2005-06 (thanks in part to rule changes recommended by the league’s competition and rules committees) counters that argument.

The fans anger at Bettman regarding the previous lockouts, and the threat of another, is legitimate. After all, he’s the commissioner, the face of the NHL in CBA talks, so he deserves his fair share of blame for the work stoppages.

However, those who claim he’s “destroying the NHL” with his hardline stance in labor negotiations must understand he’s acting on behalf of the team owners, and negotiates on their behalf. If his escalating salary (up to nearly $8 million in 2011, compared to $3.77 million in 2004) is anything to go by, most of those owners must be pleased with his efforts.

Critics can debate how much influence Bettman has, but if the owners didn’t want a lockout, there wouldn’t be one, even if he were pushing for it.

Bettman’s a tough negotiator, as players (past and present) and two former NHLPA directors know only too well, but that’s the kind of guy the team owners want representing them. Considering what he got for them in the last lockout – a CBA with a three-tier salary cap, significant reductions in the players share of revenue, escrow, and soundly defeating a PA director whom the owners loathed – it’s no wonder he’s still the commissioner.

And while many hockey fans don’t like to admit it, the fact remains he was right when he said the league recovered from the previous lockout because of its fans. If Bettman is “destroying the NHL”, the rising attendance, TV ratings and revenue numbers suggest otherwise.

Bettman won’t win any popularity contests with NHL fans, but in his line of work, it is results which matter. Evidently, the team owners are pleased with those under his watch.

This isn’t to suggest Bettman is above criticism.

The attempted purchase of the NY Islanders by con man John Spano in 1996-97, disgraced financier William “Boots” Del Biaggio’s attempt to purchase 24 percent of the Predators in 2007, and the fiasco of the short-lived ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning by “OK Hockey” were significant embarrassments. The handling of the infamous “No Goal” in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final was another notable black eye. Bettman remains haunted by his claim during the last lockout that NHL ticket prices would drop if the league achieved its cost certainty. The well-documented efforts to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona is an ongoing soap opera. He’s also come under criticism for his comments last December suggesting there wasn’t enough data linking concussions to the brain condition known as CTE.

And of course, he’ll never be forgiven for his role in the season-killing lockout of 2004-05, which imposed a system that failed to assist the struggling teams it was supposed to help.

Bettman deserves to be singled out for criticism when it is justified. Blaming him for expansion, the reduction of fighting, the relocation of two Canadian franchises to the United States, failing to land a TV contract with ESPN, or just plain “ruining the game”, however, doesn’t bear up under scrutiny.

25 Comments

  1. Excellent read Lyle, thanks!

    • Great article! I was at Game 7 of the Nucks /Boston, while not a rioter, I did boo Bettman with everyone else. A smart man with leather skin who takes the bullets for the owners! That’s a lot of bullets for a messenger, but at $8 Million, he can afford to take them like a champ!

  2. You better be careful, the FACTS you presented may get you labeled as pro-Bettman, which will only get you in trouble with your Canadian brethren.

  3. Great Article Lyle,

    While I don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Bettman and his stance on things, I also understand that he is the face of the ownership and that he is just doing his job on their behalf. By bringing someone else in to replace him, you would just get “more of the same” and be no further ahead.

  4. Thanks for the article, reminds us fans that he’s not the “bad guy” for some reasons we believe he’s responsible for.
    But, he’s got a face we LOVE TO HATE =^}

  5. You certainly go in depth when defending Bettman, but gloss right over a very brief list of his screw-ups. Not a very balanced article at all…

    • Going in depth defending Bettman was the point of the piece. Regardless, if you feel it wasn’t balanced, please provide a list of his screw-ups, other than those you claim I “glossed over”.

      • So you’ve picked a side and you’re going to spin the article in their favor… Do you also report for Fox News? How about a fair, balanced look for and against Bettman?
        I didn’t simply “claim” that you glossed over the negative issues, clearly 80% or more of the article is you telling us why we shouldn’t blame him for one thing or another, followed by a paltry couple of paragraphs of (basically) bullet pointed items that were his doing. As for other issues, for starters how about the ridiculously inconsistent doling out of suspensions/fines for illegal hits and so forth?
        I am not necessarily anti-Bettman, but I am tired of people passing themselves off as “journalists” when they are simply PR writers for one side or another…

        • So in other words, “c”, you’ve got nothing to buttress your claim, other than doling out suspensions and fines, which is the responsibility of the league’s head disciplinarian (currently Brendan Shanahan, and Colin Campbell and Brian Burke before him), not the commissioner. Care to try again?

          • True to form, you have ignored the major point here, and have singled out and (poorly) rebutted what was merely a suggestion of another point that demonstrates how Bettman has done a less than adequate job of overseeing the NHL in general. Apparently your reading is as one eyed as your writing. Keep this up and Uncle Gary will bring you on as a PR writer for the NHL. At least then you’ll not be writing under false pretenses as a so-called journalist. Keep up the mediocre work, “Lyle”.

    • C shut up

  6. Wow, great column.
    I didn’t know all that stuff, I’d had had a poorer impression of Bettman to be sure.
    Not that I’d have him in my hockey pool in any case.

    So maybe I retract that slightly snide insinuation in my letter to yesterday’s Soapbox, esp if this keeps up!

    Truth to power, Spec.
    And Power isn’t always who it seems to be.

    da ratt

  7. Great read, Lyle. I’ve been asserting the same thing for years. Bettman is loathed for the wrong reasons. The OLN grab over the discount ESPN offer I believe was a wise decision. Let us not forget that ESPN had also acquired the right to broadcast some NBA games just before the lockout ended. In terms of advertizing dollars ESPN would push the NBA a bit harder than it would the NHL. So the potential of wider viewership via ESPN is greatly over-estimated IMO. Plus, put yourselves in the owner shoes at the time, they would all want the bigger TV contract..especially after having lost a season. As I see it, the only really stupid things I can attribute to Bettman are the glow-puck and the continued expansion as you’ve noted. Lastly, Bettman isn’t anti-canadian…he’s pro-money. At the time that winnepeg and quebec were moved I believe that the exchange rate was not as even as it is now. Trust me, if the canadian dollar suddenly surpasses the US by as wide a margin, people will begin to accuse bettman of being anti-american. It’s neither…it’s all about the dollars (or loonies as the case may be).

  8. “c”, my congratulations for the strangest and funniest “insult” comment I’ve ever received. You failed to grasp the point of the Bettman post (rebutting the main criticisms of Bettman by the fans), failed to provide any significant alternative criticism except for one regarding suspensions which was easily rebutted, launched into a poor attempt to insult me by claiming I’m a Bettman supporter (a first for me!), then finishing by putting my first name in brackets as though that’s some kind of epithet. Hilarious!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the banter…

  9. I’m gonna go with Lyle on this one “c”. You sound like a Vancouver fan to me, angry, bitter, arogant losers. GO KINGS!

  10. Bettman may not be the worst commissioner the NHL has ever had (that would probably be the obviously uninterested in the game Ziegler) but he’s had his share of controversy. he certainly doesn’t win any fans with his evasiveness when it comes to the tough questions but that’s probably his law training. i recognize that he’s just the talking head the owners put in front of the cameras but maybe they need to realize that if he’s that unpopular then maybe replacing him at the end of these negotiations would be a crumb they could toss to the fans.
    for real change to happen it’ll have to occur behind the scenes with the current powerbrokers (among owners) giving up some of their power to balance things in the boardroom.if change isn’t made there they could face a revolt from owners removed from the current power structure. as unhappy as fans are with Bettman there are owners who are just as unhappy with the way things have gone since the last lockout, particularly with no resolution to the situation in Phoenix and salaries still escalating.
    i think for those owners hoping for revenue sharing to save them there needs to be a realization that progress will have to be shown among troubled franchises to keep revenue sharing viable. if the owners are truly serious about fixing the financial problems with the league then they’re going to have to admit it’s not salaries alone that are the problem. the league is going to have to implement a process of identifying troubled franchises and developing a step by step plan of dealing with them. what’s currently going on in Phoenix isn’t healthy for the league and if the proposed sale to Jamison falls through then perhaps it’s time to close the chapter on the Coyotes either through relocation or contraction.

  11. I truly enjoyed the read Lyle, I actually never knew a few of those things and would be on the guilty list of accusing Bettman for some of those myself (aka Anti-Canada). Apparently ‘C’ also didn’t read your article on the CBA negotiations where you clearly tore apart the league and didn’t have a tear to shed. But then again, some people called you one sided then as well, guess you can’t please everyone.

    Keep up the solid work. Still my favorite hockey news site.

    • I have since read that article, and was impressed. I stand corrected, and a little humbled, too…

      • That is great of you to admit. Truly impressed.

  12. It’s one thing about Bettman that gets my head spinning – why doesn’t he quit? I mean, if I were a multimillionare who got booed of stage the minute I show my self at work, I would rather do something else… He’s, and will be regardless of this or any other article, going to be public enemy number one in NHL fan community.

  13. Great article! I assume that when people are hating on Bettman they mean ‘owners’ and that everyone realizes that Bettman is just a tool of the owners. His job is to ensure that instead of hating on Molson and Bell Canada and all the other corporations that stand 100% behind Bettman, you hate Bettman instead. i see that this strategy has worked perfectly, many have fallen for the trap. That is why I admire Bettman, he does his job so well. (and that doesn’t for a second mean that he knows what is good for hockey or how to run the NHL properly…it only means he does his ‘job’ of covering for the owners greed very well).
    Telio

    Teliopost.com…the greatest NHL and Canadiens website!

  14. Once again, great article Lyle. You refute a lot of “facts” that most fans assumed to be true about where Bettman has guided the league.

    How’s that job at Fox working out? LOL Stick to your guns Lyle, I love your site.

    And “c” .. get a life. Nice try!

    Pancho

  15. You miss the reason fans feel he should be fired. His lack of openness and communication among the public. We as fans have no idea whats going on, what the problems actually are, and what kind of progress is being achieved.

    Ignoring us for weeks and then saying “youre the best fans in the world” is garbage.

    Fehr has been at least trying to answer questions daily. And although his answers are usually bland and vague, at least hes giving the fans something. Bettman is beginning to seem like he thinks he is above us. Bragging for three years about these huge revenue increases and then screaming poor makes him seem like a liar. That is why we want Bettman fired, hes secretive to the point of appearing deceptive. We dont want a politician as commissioner, we want a hockey-lover in charge. We want someone who actually doesnt want a lockout because they actually want to watch hockey this year.