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.