Takin' a T/O With BT: Gary Bettman North Of The Border

xx yySenior Writer IMay 30, 2008

I'm not sure if it's a two-part series when two different people write about it, however Jennifer Conway and I have decided to embark upon a little Canadian/American relation. Because of the impeccable job that Gary Bettman has done with the NHL, we figured it was time to give the man his due—so below you'll find a Canadian's take on what Bettman has done for the game of hockey and the NHL, while Jen has provided you with the American take

Hope you enjoy...

History has been littered with great leaders, as well as terrible leaders. What makes these leaders hold down a spot in our minds and force us to think about them years after they’ve run their course, is their reputation and the controversy created.

For every leader you’ll find supporters who think that their ‘chosen one’s’ tactics are well thought out, practical, and just what is needed in a dire situation. On the other side of the fence however, there will be those who simply cannot stand that leader—the people who watch with disdain as everything that was assumed good in their own eyes is washed away under a sea of miscommunication and lies.

Canada and the United States are actually closer than we think in this regard—both Steven Harper and George W. Bush have those who are tiring of their incessant actions, while those who approve applaud respectfully from a corner, only coming forth in defense of their Chieftain when the time is right, or the murmurs of discontent get too loud.

In the sports world, fans of the Toronto Blue Jays have John 'Jimy Williams' Gibbons, while if you're Sean Crowe and the rest of the Boston Celtics fans, you have Doc Rivers.

But for Gary Bettman, who are his supporters? The numbers against him seem to rise every day as his eternal struggle to bring new fans to the timeless game of hockey results in fans of the game in it’s purest form leaving and pursuing greener pastures—or at least pastures run by a shepherd who looks nothing like a shrew.

But when was the last time you ever heard someone speak well of Bettman?

We constantly hear of the man’s vision to see hockey to the future—how the sport will begin to thrive and prosper, so much so that it could even move into the realm of international play. We hear about how the game is moving forward while staying “original” and “true to it’s roots” in an attempt to lure the casual fan, and entrench the hardcore.

Needless to say, the NHL is starting to look more dysfunctional than Christmas at Ozzie Osbourne’s house.

Now if we were to say one thing going forward that’s nice about Gary Bettman, it’s that he has the right players going forward. To be able to market around Alexander Ovechkin, Dion Phaneuf, Rick Nash, Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton is a treat, and from a players’ standpoint, Bettman is in the clear.

Unfortunately I lied—in no way is it possible to give Gary Bettman credit for the players entering the league. If he had assigned each player to their respective team the moment they became NHL eligible, formulated a specific draft list to tell the NHL’s teams who and whom they couldn’t draft, drafted each player for each team, or illegitimately fathered over 700 NHL-caliber athletes, then yes we could give him credit. Unfortunately for Bettman, unless the NHL is one giant puppet show—or athleticism skips a generation in his family—he can’t get any credit in this department.

At least we tried right?

Needless to say, Gary Bettman has done more harm than good to the NHL. The first thing you can bring up is the lockout. Granted, to this story there were two sides, but as the chapters unfolded, the support for either side waned. How can you take the ‘head’ of the league seriously when he wasn’t even involved in the January 2005 discussions that were an attempt to save the season? If he was truly concerned shouldn’t he have been there?

You could also argue that if Bettman was truly concerned about the game, then this wouldn’t have been the second work stoppage that the NHL had faced since the beginning of his tenure.

Following the lockout in 2004-05 though, there were the well-publicized rule changes that have altered the outlook of the game forever—so much so that now when I watch International hockey I have to think twice before asking “but where’s the trapezoid”.

But much has been made of everything that was the lockout and what resulted from it—we’ve all heard how Bettman has hurt the game in general. But what about how he’s hurt the game in Canada?

Now initially, saying something like that would seem ludicrous. Despite the daily soap opera that is the Toronto Maple Leafs (which Bettman has found a way to meddle in—by telling the Leafs not to meddle), the six Canadian teams are very well-off. This past season alone, five of the six Canadian teams were in the top-ten in league attendance, and only two of those were outside of the top-five.

Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto were first, third, and fifth in league attendance, followed by Calgary at six, and Vancouver at nine. The team that missed out on the top-ten was Edmonton, who finished eighteenth, however their average attendance (16, 828) was only 11 off of the maximum capacity of Rexall Place (16, 839).

But let’s go back in time a little, to February 1st, 1993—the day Bettman was hired. After a fairly lengthy tenure, and fast rise in the NBA, he was brought in by the NHL owners to do a number of things: the main ideas being that he was expected to end the labor disputes in the NHL (Gil Stein enjoyed that so much that his book How to Script Your Own Entrance to the Hall of Fame has been placed on the back burner in favor of Strike Me Down Every Decade on the Decade: Gary Bettman’s Journey Through the NHL—The Musical), help finish off the expansion process, and help the game grow roots in the American markets.

But then (much like the Grinch), Gary Bettman had an idea. An awful idea.

Gary Bettman had a wonderful, awful idea.

‘What if’, he thought ‘we commandeer Canadian teams and bring them to the United States while we expand with entirely new teams here too!’

And that’s just what he did.

(Editor’s Note: I’m not creative enough to start talking in rhyme from here on out—just so nobody gets disappointed here).

Before the Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, or Nashville Predators were even a twinkle in the Commish’s beady little eyes, he began to pillage the Canadian market.

In 1995, the smallest of the small market teams, the Quebec Nordiques, were forced to part ways with La Belle Province, and move on to the richer pastures of Denver, Colorado. The following year, the Phoenix Coyotes rose from the ashes of the Winnipeg Jets.

Needless to say, the reason for the moves was drawn back to money—being small market teams, neither the Nordiques nor the Jets could keep up with the escalation in player salaries despite the work stoppage in 1994/95, and the owners’ hands were forced into the sale of two beloved Canadian franchises.

Despite the reasoning that the players are what killed these two Canadian teams, it doesn’t explain the fact that players were looking to implement revenue sharing throughout the NHL to help the smaller market teams.

Ten years later, in an effort to save his beloved American small market teams, we’re now looking at a league playing by the rules of the CBA that’s meant to benefit small market teams.

If Bettman truly cared about growing the sport, then America and Canada would be considered equals—especially with the new cap system—when looking to garner consideration for a new franchise.

Today however, he seems hell-bent on expanding the American market to places like Kansas City, while entrenching American teams to the south-side of the border, despite their fiscal liabilities (Just ask Mr. Jim Balsille…).

Sidenote: To be honest, I never agreed with the idea of an NHL franchise in Hamilton or the Kitchener/Waterloo region—it just makes it seem too crowded in Southwestern Ontario, especially with the likes of Detroit, Toronto, and Buffalo, as well as the two New York teams.

I do however agree with buying one of the floundering American teams and moving them to Canada—and if it so happens to come to Hamilton or the K/W area, I guess I’ll just have to roll with it.

Gary Bettman got what he wanted eventually with the implementation of a salary cap, so now the smaller markets can survive. However, it looks more and more like the cap is just life-support for a few comatose patients who are already gone.

Nice try Gary. Just remember—Canada still exists if you ever need to air lift any patients to more fruitful pastures.


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