Blunders, Blips, and Bile: The Bettman Effect - A Companion Piece

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst IMay 31, 2008

About a month ago, fellow BR hockey fan Jennifer Conway approached me with a fantastic idea. As she is an American and I am Canadian, she thought we ought to take a look at our respective nations’ common enemy: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. From the time he first took the reins of the NHL in 1993 he has caused controversy by his handling of this hallowed league and his apparent indifference to the traditions on which it was founded. Unfortunately I was unavoidably called away from the real world for the past monthas my lack of Bleacher Reporting may attestand luckily Senior Writer Bryan Thiel took over the Canadian angle, and has done a much more thorough job than I ever could have. Graciously, they left an opening for my research in the form of a responsive article, which is essentially the gut reaction I have personally experienced and seen in many other fans.  This is a look at the impressions, sometimes exaggerated in the minds of hockey faithful, which remain in the wake of the Commish.

You love hockey.  You must at least be interested, if you have come this far.  It doesn't matter where you are from or how close your relationship is with the game; everyone connects with sport in their own way.

In North America, the NHL dominates the professional hockey scene, and for the past fifteen years it has been directed by its Commissioner—a businessman/lawyer from Queens by the name of Gary Bettman. Before joining the NHL—and after leaving a lucrative law firm—he had been executive management in the NBA, instituting their famous salary-cap system, and has spent years getting under the skin of sports fans, media, and participants.


On either side of the longest [previously] undefended border on Earth, Bettman had made an indelible impression to go with a healthy dose of opposition. His antics and methods often seem to Canucks as either extremely anti-Canadian or radically pro-American.

In reality, his tenure has caused issues, positive and negative, across the North American hockey world. Though both nationalities find fault with Gary Bettman's leadership, Americans and Canadians see the situation through slightly different tints of glass.

The one major difference in the effect Bettman and his cronies have on our nations' relationship with the game (whew, that was long) is that at the least, in Canada the game itself is in no real danger of losing popularity. It is the NHL, and any ramifications their ideas may have on other levels of hockey, that is gaining more and more opposition.

In the States, there is a very real problem in finding room for hockey in the already flooded sports market. Bettman, rather than marketing to Canada and the numerous US areas that are strong in terms of hockey base, has made special effort to add—and hold on life-support—a number of teams in regions unable and/or unwilling to support least not in the lucrative manner the League would like.

To many hockey fans, this in itself is an irritant that leads to insult.

Support bases are strong North of the border, and to be honest, almost over-saturated. The Canadian Press has recently reported that 31 percent of the League’s $1.1 billion worth of ticket sales* come via the six Canadian teams. Of the remaining twenty-four US teams, eleven either barely broke even and/or recorded losses last year. This, in markets Bettman insists are growing and self-sufficient.

Additionally, though I could not find the stats on merchandising, sales on jerseys, shirts, hats, etc. would presumably be comparably high up North. In fact, since there is far more merchandise than available arena seats, hockey-retail sale numbers are likely to be exponentially higher in Canada than in the US, where there is greater competition from the NBA, MLB, NFL, NASCAR, PGA, college sports, etc. 

With so much of the revenue and support coming from North of the border, it is tiring when Southern states and franchises whose existence seems unnaturally forced are pandered to while passionate fans—in respected hockey venues on BOTH sides of the border—seem to get the shaft.

There is almost a level of paranoia that Canadian fans feel in this, the reign of Bettman. When folks who have spent their entire lives living the game as a part of the Canadian cultural experience think they see a weasely little demon—who doesn't seem to understand hockey let alone like it!—perched over their beloved icon with beady dollar-sign eyes, it begins to feel like a personal vendetta.

The image of his relationship with hockey is a caricature of itself.  At this point, too many people have the political-cartoon version of the Commissioner's office burned into their minds to always see the situation with much objectivity.

Since his arrival in 1993, the game has been changed. Interested parties have watched strange rules added and important ones removed or in threat of being removed. Some changes have been good, but if you had only started watching a few years ago you wouldn't understand what has been lost... especially to the die-hard follower.

Furthermore, eventually rule changes made at the NHL level threaten to trickle down into other levels of hockey, altering the game itself, possibly forever.

As has been stated in the other articles, the emphasis on scoring has reached a ridiculous level. Now, that being said, there have been on-and-off periods of high and low scoring throughout NHL history, and it can be fun to watch on occasion. However, to change the rules with the poorly veiled intention of increasing scoring, ostensibly allowing stars and superstars to entertain the masses and therefore ingratiate hockey into the hearts and minds of the score-hungry American public is somewhat pathetic.  Especially if it alienates the original audience.

One of the reasons Bettman wanted more goals is that apparently, the American public can‘t stand any low-scoring, slow-action sport. Has anyone heard of baseball? (And hey, I love baseball!) Even football can be low/tight scoring. Besides, judging by the numerous American fans who have always loved hockey, it seems they are not so uncomfortable with how the game was played.  At least in hockey, as Jen Conway said, there is something to watch nearly every second of the game.  

If folks don’t like the game then they don’t like it. It doesn’t seem fair to alter the fabric of the game to draw in those who don’t like it enough.

Imagine the antagonism in America if the Japanese, who have found an adopted sport in baseball, suddenly decided to buy up MLB majority shares and change the entire US baseball experience to fit their ideal?

There is nothing wrong with the Japanese, their way of life, their enjoyment of the game and their involvement within the sport, but American fans would be more than a little indignant to see an outside influence in charge of the future of such a storied League if fans were forced to bear the brunt of unwanted changes. No more hot dogs at Fenway. Only sushi, because after all, there are far more Japanese people—and their Yen—in the world than Americans.

Besides, it isn’t as though most Americans want a different game. Far from it, if you listen to fans from around the continent, and on sites like this one. However, the Bettman Administration has done all it can to dumb down the sport and tailor it to what it thinks will sell. The infamous FoxTrax—the glowing puck that slid along the screen as a “visual aid”—gave Canadians the impression that if Americans could see a tiny white golf ball against clouds easily enough, they were pretty thick if they needed help to see black on white.

American fans thought it was silly as well, and were aware of how it made them look to the rest of the hockey world. 

People like Bettman unfairly give the impression that the average American association with hockey is either a financial arrangement or one of non-comprehension.

After the lockout, many fans North of 49 began to lose some interest in the National Hockey League. There was hockey in various forms to tide people over (though the loss of the NHL was huge nonetheless, especially on Saturday nights!) and other Leagues increased their followings.

Regular Joes have paid ever-increasing prices to see the NHL teams they grew up with, and thus feel a sense of ownership towards these organisations. Now, many would rather take the entire family to see a Calgary Hitmen game for $60 in great seats than pay $750 for two mid-range seats at a Flames game. Merchandising here is huge, and again, many feel they are paying the ticket so that Bettman and others can steal the game away.

The "New NHL" games didn't have the same spark, and despite many elaborate efforts, some excitement was lost. For one, people had been upset by the loss of NHL hockey, into which they had paid so much energy and money. They were happy to have it return, but many were jaded by that time.

And when it did come back, although some things had been improved—including the overused term "parity"—the game had been given an image-altering make-over. Some wrinkles had been erased, but too many scars were showing in the aftermath of this hack-job.

Diminished physicality was a hot button subject, as it removed entire aspects from a team and skater's repertoire. Fine, players had to adapt, and viewers got some good hockey out of it... to a point.

Why are fans and players being asked to give up a lifetime's worth of experiences, memories and ideas so that an already uninterested American audience—the one that wasn't going to watch anyway—can potentially benefit?

And then the NHL Commission expects loyalty from the people who pay the way, and try to blame the players for being too greedy, and the fans, for lacking an understanding of the situation?  They obviously don’t give their public supporters much intellectual credit.

The 2005 lockout made Canadian fans feel manipulated, lied to, and used. It was the second lockout since Bettman took over—1994-95 saw only half a season played—and the excuses used the first time around were recycled and rehashed, and the blame again redirected. There was so much spin from the outset that most of us knew there was no real chance of avoiding a full-season lockout, and when Bettman, with eyes filled with crocodile-tears made the announcement that 2004-05 was not to be, many lost faith.

From a US viewpoint, fans are being driven away—and equally not being lured in—due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is the difficulty in accessing games on television. Canadians don’t have as much of a problem in that department, as each of the Canadian teams will at least have their entire schedule broadcast on local/online radio, and have a pay-per-view channel on top of weekly CBC broadcasts. In most cities, the NHL franchise is the only major sports team; then there are the CFL teams and lower level sports teams (Toronto, of course, has the Jays, Raptors, and Toronto FC, but nothing compares to the Leafs in T.O.)

Games can even be accessed by folks in the Far Northern areas, in middle of nowhere Arctic-tundra-land. Nearly all sports marketing in Canada is hockey related.  Although there are large followings for all sports, and Canadians follow teams from other countries regularly, hockey remains a reliable constant.

Hockey Night in Canada's (CBC) Staurday night broadcasts are a staple, but even this famed institution faces schedule-based issues.  Indeed, various highly successful hockey programs are often asked to take a backseat to poorly staged US network/satellite broadcasts, and viewers must watch lesser-quality commentation.

The CBC's typically unbalanced Western schedule, however, is largely their own prerogative—there is always a Leafs game, even if it's in Florida, but the Flames/Wild divisional game wouldn't be seen—but the schedule hasn't helped... even though broadcasts are kept in mind during preparation.

At any rate, Canadians have relatively easy access to the game, whereas years of up-and-down media contracts down South have made the sport's availability inconsistent and frustrating.

From what I have heard from US fans, this is on of their biggest day-to-day complaints regarding the NHL.  Without easy access to their team's games, people lose interest.

But again, hard-core hockey fans know that when poor efforts are made in the US to showcase the game properly, the sport becomes a joke to the uninitiated masses of America. Very poor/misplaced PR and marketing on the part of the Bettman era has created an unnecessary issue, for all their hot air and bluster about saving money and getting contracts for the greater benefit. 

The bottom line is that Canadians are proprietary when it comes to hockey, and not just the NHL, which is the most common relationship the average fan has with hockey outside of playing. And for the past I don't know how many years, the man in charge of this long-standing, historical, and proud league has shown a lack of genuine respect for the traditions that have made it so great.

Perhaps more accurately, the showings he has made have seemed to lacked sincerity.  In any case, the image Bettman has made for himself is not very favourable, no matter what good he may have done.

We have watched the way hockey is played on the ice morph into a totally new version of the game, where defenders can no longer take charge in the slot or stand up for their team mates without creating the Bettman-favourite special teams opportunity—and all the inflated scoring that goes with it.

Further on the topic of goalphilia: NHL records have been altered for all time with the advent of the shootout, which can be fun to watch but is also unnecessary in many ways. So many three-point games wreaking havoc with the standings, all for an addition that is a blatant attempt to make the game seem more exciting. IT IS EXCITING!

We watch the merchandising and marketing of the NHL overwhelm the game itself. Do we want the stupidity of other Major League sports? Do we want new pressures to lead to steroids, endemic unsportsmanlike behaviour, and players driven no longer by heart and love for the game, but by fame, money and endorsement contracts?

If this and the convincing arguments made in Bryan and Jen’s articles aren’t enough, take a look for yourself the next time Bettman is spot-lit at a game or event. You can even look at the photo at the top of this article. 

For a man who has spent more than two decades in professional sport, he has yet to show even the pretence of sincere enjoyment in the efforts and excitement in front of him. This is not to say he must be a hard-core hockey-nut in order to run the business side. If these multitude of controversies did not mar his record, perhaps fans would not mind his disinterest. However, after all the meddling he has done to the great game of hockey, it seems impertinent that he should be unaffected by his actions while those who truly care are left lamenting over the remains of a beloved friend.

Too much? Perhaps, but when cold, emotionless eyes survey the game one loves, it sends a shiver up the spine.

The reason Gary Bettman has not one single serious advocate in this country is because he does not seem to have the people's best interests at heart, and because he does not have hockey's best interests at heart.

Fans will always be engaged and disenchanted by performances from their favourite teams and players, but they move on to others and continue on loving the game. When—and I have frequently seen this first hand since the lockout—people lose faith in the NHL and/or the game itself, it is a whole other story.

The effect Bettman has had can be stated simply in respect to our two countries: He has alienated the foundation as he has ineffectually chased a long-shot. If things don't change soon, he and the NHL may find themselves turning in all directions without a friendly face to be seen.

The old base will have turned their backs, and the American dream he has been so obsessed with will be out of his reach, completely uninterested in him or his little league. As I said before, the Canadian population will never lose hockey...

...whether or not they continue to whole-heartedly support the NHL remains to be seen.

Already, the dissent is disturbing, but so is the rabidity of the fans. There are so many supporters that it would take a long time to chip the Canadian base away. Even so, fans worry that the slightest falter in a Canadian team's performance could spell the end, while a floundering US team would be saved time and again. Paranoia.

I know Bettman thinks he sees the big dangling carrot of a massive US market, but I think he needs a reality check. Even if he ever got the impossible, would it do much good if he lost the most important cash-paying audience?  They have failed to identify the right demographics.  Just because the citizens of a new franchise city have money, doesn't mean they will randomly spend it on the NHL.

I hope for everyone's sake that a spreading love of hockey rises from this unnaturally forced distribution. The powers that be must realise that some of these ventures have succeeded, yet some have failed miserably.  Losses must be cut eventually.  Until then, Canadian and US fans will suffer this experiment. 

Thankfully, to Canadians—and those in the Northern US—hockey isn't just a business. It's a way of life. Even for those who have made it their professional business, it is always, first and foremost, about the game. 

To read Jennifer Conway's American take on the current NHL Commissioner, read Bettman Across the Border.

For a look at the Canadian perspective, see Bryan Thiel's article Takin' a T/O With BT: Gary Bettman North Of The Border.

PS - When it really comes down to it, it is the fans and participants that make hockey great.  As long as eveyone takes responsibility for their own connection with the game, it will remain "ours"... and stay out of the hands of business.

* Ticket sale totals do not include pre-season games; such games are well attended in well-rooted venues, but lack somewhat in struggling markets.  Though it is likely these numbers are inflated due to a healthy Canadian dollar, the totals still account for an overwhelming share of the market.  Especially when one considers the eleven struggling US organisations.  The "list" of team revenues was originally published in the Toronto Star.

EDIT NOTE: We are in an exciting era of hockey, yet it is marked by controversy.  There are reasons for this, so as we enjoy the new, faster-paced game, remember the undercurrents still swirling, ready to pull under at any time.


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