Here we are. The NHL has locked out its players once again and fans are left wondering when their favorite sport will return.
The NHL has paid lip service to fans' pain, while acknowledging that the issues at hand right now are actually not that significant. From nhl.com:
While our last CBA negotiation resulted in a seismic change in the League's economic system, and produced corresponding on-ice benefits, our current negotiation is focused on a fairer and more sustainable division of revenues with the Players -- as well as other necessary adjustments consistent with the objectives of the economic system we developed jointly with the NHL Players' Association seven years ago...(We) all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible. We owe it to each other, to the game and, most of all, to the fans.
From the moment he took office in 1993 right up to the present, NHL fans have been keen to show their distaste for the leader of the NHL pack, Commissioner Gary Bettman.
To pass the time while we wait for resolution, here's my look at the 15 biggest reasons behind the hatred, featuring quotes from the Twitterverse from the fans themselves.
As this 1993 article from the New York Times explains, Gary Bettman was hired as the NHL's first Commissioner with a mandate to end labour unrest, among other things. Instead, his two-decade tenure has turned out to be the most unsettled of any major professional sports league.
He is now presiding over the league's third lockout, meaning Bettman has been an utter failure at running a harmonious NHL. The owners who employ him continue to support him, but fans see it differently:
Heading towards a THIRD NHL lockout under tenure of Gary Bettman. As if Canadians didn't hate the man enough(really, how is he in charge?)
— Daniel Bach (@danielblether) September 10, 2012
In 1993-94, during his second season at the helm, it was clear that Gary Bettman brought a different approach to NHL business.
The New York Rangers won their first Cup in 50 years, and that was deemed to be positive to the sport's American profile. But it wasn't enough to prevent a 103-day lockout as owners and players each struggled for their rightful piece of the pie.
The league regrouped at Christmas to play an abbreviated 48-game schedule in 1995, but by the end of the season, there was upheaval everywhere. One year removed from the Stanley Cup Finals, the Kings declared bankruptcy and owner Bruce McNall was on his way to jail. The Quebec Nordiques were on their way to Denver, and the Winnipeg Jets were on tenuous ground. Even '95 cup winners New Jersey looked like they could be on the move.
1994: NYR won Cup. NHL saw peak popularity in US markets. All over ESPN and ESPN2. How do they capitalize? Start 94-95 with a lockout.— Chris Jiuliante (@stoosh10) September 13, 2012
In 2004, the players had a much tougher PR battle than they do today. Their salaries had increased dramatically following the '94 lockout, causing many fans to stop viewing them as "working stiffs" and start thinking of them as "privileged millionaires."
The owners held their ground, the season was canceled, and the NLHPA disintegrated into rival factions. In the end, the owners were able to institute a salary cap and institute most of the other terms on their wish list.
Fans were bitter about the lost season, and more subtle damage was done to the foundation of the game. Witness this Tweet from Chris Peters, spotlighting the dip in hockey development in the USA due to the 2004-05 lockout:
As a refresher, the 2004-05 lockout put a dagger in U.S. hockey growth with USA Hockey losing 18k+ youths from 2004-06 unitedstatesofhockey.com/2012/08/16/pot…
— Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) September 15, 2012
In 2012, public perception is not on the owners' side. Fans know that revenues have increased by 50 percent since the 2004-05 lockout. Player salaries have also gone up, because they're linked to revenue under the salary cap. Lest we forget, USA Today reported that in 2003-04, before the last lockout, the Detroit Red Wings' total salary commitment was more than $77 million—well above today's salary cap without accounting for inflation or increased revenues. They had eight players on their roster making $5 million or more.
Since the players took a 24 percent rollback in 2004-05, their piece of the pie is only 26 percent larger than it was before that lockout. So despite the franchises who still lose money, the owners are making more, and keeping more, than they were prior to 2004.
The owners' opportunity to lock out the players is the one chance they have to try to leverage an even larger piece of the pie. As business owners, they do assume much of the risk, and sports franchises are typically more about vanity than they are about the bottom line.
Fans and media might grudgingly acknowledge that the NHL's financial growth though the recession of the last few years could prove that the business model is, basically, working. But most would rather hammer on Bettman. Here's Adrian Dater, hockey columnist for the Denver Post and SI.com:
T-minus 5h35m until the NHL's extremely stupid, ridiculously ill-advised and moronically conceived lockout begins
— adater (@adater) September 15, 2012
In 2012, the seven Canadian hockey franchises are among the strongest in the league, almost regardless of their on-ice performance. Attendance figures are high, and tickets are priced accordingly.
But it was not always so. Canadians have not forgiven Gary Bettman for relocating the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix or the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado early in his tenure or for blocking the potential relocation of the Nashville Predators to Hamilton.
The return of the Jets has been lauded, and the rumblings continue that Quebec might also reclaim a franchise, but Bettman's image remains unchanged.
Also worth noting: the last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup was Montreal in 1993, when Gary Bettman had been on the job for just half a season. Coincidence or conspiracy?
Gary Bettman must love torturing Canadians.
— TJ (@HEELPerrault) September 13, 2012
Under Bettman's watch, the league added the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, while moving the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, the Quebec Nordiques to Denver, the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix and the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina.
According to ESPN, nine of the team's bottom 11 franchises in terms of attendance come from these ten expansion or relocation teams. Minnesota is the only one to escape, at a lofty No. 16.
If you build it, they won't necessarily come? Let's examine the plight of some of these franchises.
Sorry Gary Bettman but you created the problem with disastrous expansion teams...that's on you, not the players. @nhl
— Mike McDaniel (@MikeMcD76) September 14, 2012
The Atlanta Thrashers franchise was awarded under Bettman's watch in 1997, as part of a four-team expansion that also included Minnesota, Columbus, and Nashville. This was not Atlanta's first foray into hockey: the Flames originated there in 1972 but moved to Calgary in 1980.
The Thrashers franchise lasted a little longer—from 1999 to 2011—before also relocating to a smaller Canadian market, this time Winnipeg.
According to Hockeydb.com, over 902 games in 11 seasons, the Thrashers put up a record of 342-437-45-49-29, for a winning percentage of .447. They made one playoff appearance, where they were swept 4-0 by the New York Rangers despite having home-ice advantage. Attendance started at 17,206 in their first expansion year and dwindled to a low of 13,469 in their final season.
In 2011, James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail explained that the demise of the Thrashers had more to do with poor, fractured ownership than anything else. As fans are well aware, finding and nurturing good owners is Gary Bettman's responsibility. No matter how large the market or how many big corporations might call it home, stable ownership is absolutely necessary for a franchise's long-term success.
Of all the "non-traditional" markets Gary Bettman has pursued, Phoenix is the one that troubles fans the most.
On top of bearing the weight of being the dearly departed original Winnipeg Jets, the Coyotes franchise has been plagued with problems from the outset. Their original home at the AmericaWest arena was not well-suited to hockey; their current home in Glendale is in the middle of nowhere. Combine this with the fact that hockey is not indigenous in the desert and the Coyotes have struggled to build a fanbase.
But, as David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail explained back in 2011, even a bankrupt franchise has value to the NHL. The Phoenix area is the 12th-largest television market in the US, and American television partners wanted it included in any national TV deal.
As this fan points out, a lockout is one way to solve the Coyotes' attendance woes:
#coyoteswill have the best attendance in october for the 1st time ever and your savior bettman is happy— stephane martel (@stephmartel) September 15, 2012
It's fantastically ironic that after all their statements about how the current economic system needs to be tweaked, the Phoenix Coyotes joined the pre-lockout frenzy in signing Shane Doan to a rich free agent contact.
— Josh MacLeod (@josh_macleod) September 15, 2012
It's never a good sign when any franchise player asks for a trade. Rick Nash's departure could spell the beginning of the end for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Since joining the NHL in 2000, the Blue Jackets have amassed a record that's almost identical to Altanta's: 902 games played, for 342-441-33-40-46 and a 0.445 winning percentage.
Attendance peaked in their second season, at 18,136. The last two years have been their worst, although there was a slight rebound in 2011-12 from the previous year's franchise low. Like Atlanta, they've made the playoffs one time and like Atlanta, they were swept 4-0 in their lone appearance—in this case, by Detroit in 2008-09.
The state of Ohio had also previously hosted an NHL franchise, the Cleveland Barons, from 1976-78. After just three years, the team ceased operations and merged its assets with the Minnesota North Stars.
The Blue Jackets have had a more successful run than that. Because they're not in the sun belt and because they generally don't do damage to anyone's favorite franchise, they're rarely the object of fans' wrath. But Columbus is in trouble from a hockey operations standpoint.
In another eerie coincidence, Atlanta was awarded the All-Star Game in 2005, the season lost to the last lockout. This year? It's Columbus.
Mabye the @nhl wanted a lockout because they didn't want to have a Columbus all star game televised.
— James Gleason (@JaysGleason) September 16, 2012
One strange result from the age of parity is that Canadian teams, with all their fan support and all their ticket-sales revenue, have generally struggled to be successful on the ice. Meanwhile, Bettman's expansion teams have done pretty well.
The Phoenix Coyotes made the Western Conference Final in 2012, and the Tampa Bay Lightning did the same in the East in 2011 (as well as having won the Stanley Cup right before the 2004 lockout). The Carolina Hurricanes were named the first cup champs after the lockout, and the Anaheim Ducks followed in 2007.
To the chagrin of Canadian fans, during the Bettman years, the sun belt teams have been a lot more successful in the playoffs than their Canadian brethren.
— Leslie M. (@MongoGoesCrazy) September 13, 2012
Fans remember Players are Fans too, we all grew up with the same dream. Question is do you think Bettman is a Fan?
— Steve Ott (@otter2nine) September 14, 2012
Gary Bettman never met a microphone he didn't like. But that doesn't mean you'll get a straight answer out of him.
Bettman is a master at sticking to his talking points and never letting a good question get in the way of his agenda. It keeps his message clear, but it drives fans crazy.
— Christin (@speaknow) September 13, 2012
As Canadian Business magazine points out, when Gary Bettman said that the NHL recovered well after the last lockout "because we have the greatest fans in the world," he was dead right.
The evidence shows that attendance actually increased after the last two work stoppages, and we all know that revenues have increased even more.
Fans wish they could punish the league more for taking away their favorite thing, but they most of them know they'll be back the moment an agreement is reached.
Why can’t we just boycott BETTMAN?
— Kate MacVerde (@BStarsGoalie31) September 14, 2012
Hockey's a game where size matters. The idea that the proceedings are determined by a suited man who never played the game and might measure up at 5'6" definitely rubs fans the wrong way.
When it comes to pure insults, Bettman's height is often part of the package. There were loads of Tweets in this area that aren't suitable for reposting here. Here's one of the milder ones for our last word.
Bettman has serious short man syndrome in the form of daddy issues. #needstogo
— Mark McColgan (@markmccolgan) September 13, 2012
Thanks for reading. You generally won't find me hurling insults at Bettman on my Twitter, but I can't promise that it won't happen, depending on how this lockout shakes down. Follow me if you're so inclined: