With the NHL lockout looming, commissioner Gary Bettman has again come under criticism for his apparent inability to negotiate with the NHLPA. For many, this is definitely the straw that broke the camel's back.
So how did we get here? What has pushed us to the point of hating the man in charge of our favourite sport with the sort of passion-fueled hatred you reserve for the worst of enemies?
It's simple: Gary Bettman has proven his ineffectiveness as a commissioner.
While you must respect his ability to obtain television contracts, Bettman has been otherwise useless for the league. Alienating fan and player alike, it is his unfriendly face and emotionless demeanor that truly makes him one of a kind.
He's the kind who wouldn't be able to hold a job in the service industry due to his inexplicable reluctance to emote—at all.
It's hard to believe that this man still has a job.
As the first commissioner, replacing Gil Stein (who acted as the final president of the NHL), the bright side here is that Bettman will leave some relatively easy shoes to fill when he does leave. That's if there still is an NHL by the time he goes.
Bettman's original mandate as the new commissioner was to help relieve the labour disputes that were rampant and growing in the NHL. With his history working in the NBA, he tackled this task by locking out the players and forcing his hand wherever possible. Twice, the NHL has locked out it's players, and a third lockout just a few days on the horizon.
His approach to labour relations is simple: don't have any sort of "relations" and just manhandle the players and the fans as you please.
One would hope the issues with this approach are obvious. You can't alienate both your staff and customers and be successful—that's true no matter what industry you are in.
Fans are being left out of the loop without a clear, layman answer to why these disputes last as long as they do. It's easy to understand why the fanbase feels this way. For most, the NHL is a welcome retreat from the daily grind and is something to get excited about, but most casual fans don't know contracts or even players names—with the exceptions of the stars, of course.
So what needs to happen here? Can Bettman save this?
The sad truth is no.
Even with an agreement that saves the season, Bettman has again shown his inability to work with the NHLPA and to engage fans. He continues to show no emotion, and frankly, getting booed while handing out awards should be enough to convey the anger fans have toward the commish.
Bettman needs to be fired or step into a lesser role with the NHL. Commissioner is just not his strong suit. Negotiations in the NHL are tough, and they should have began a long time ago to help avoid this situation. If Bettman wanted the league to go ahead this season, he wouldn't have waited so long.
The new commissioner, whenever that happens, needs to do a few things to ensure the success of the league. Setting clear expectations with the NHLPA and having on-going discussions—not just "our contract is up, time to talk"—is going to be key. Like any business, a happy staff will ultimately give you happy customers as long as expectations and rules are set out and understood by both staff and management.
Fans need to be engaged in ways that make sense to them. Showing up on TV with celebrities, sitting in a section a common fan could never afford is acceptable on occasion; however, getting out and talking to fans—and not just in a weekly show on a costly satellite-radio system—is what will get people to buy into what you do.
You need to be friendly, perhaps even smile once in a while. The only smile I have ever seen on Bettman is when the television contracts were signed and when lockout announcements were made—financial decisions.
It's hard being the head of anything, and the NHL is a giant entity and is absolutely no exception to that rule.
It's important to understand here that, yes, Gary Bettman has made some contributions to the NHL that have enhanced and expanded the league.
But with the overwhelming number of bad decisions though, it's hard to simply let the bad slide for the limited amount of good he has done.
It's time for the NHL to wake up and realize that the fans don't like him because of his seeming antipathy for the league. For most, this league is about enjoying a sport from childhood at a level of competition so high it's impossible not to enjoy every second—players included. For Bettman, it's money at all cost, expansion into markets with little to no interest and proving why, after nearly 20 years, he is by far the worst possible choice the NHL could have made.
It's about time for change, and in this case, just about any change would be change for the better.
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