Incompetence on Ice: Why Gary Bettman is the Worst Commissioner in Sports

Josh McMullenCorrespondent IOctober 21, 2010

CHICAGO - MAY 03: Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League speaks at a press conference before the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Vancouver Canucks in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center on May 3, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Most faithful readers will remember my diatribe last year, naming Major League Baseball’s Bud Selig as the worst commissioner in the history of organized sports.

I’ve decided that’s not the case.

There is one that is worse, and he’s running a sport he has no business running. If the powers that be had the sense God gave an orangutan, they’d throw him out on his backside right away.

I’m talking, of course, about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

First off, he’s just a coward, plain and simple. Most of you will remember the Chicago Blackhawks’ Nicklas Hjalmarsson’s hit on Buffalo Sabres star Jason Pominville that sent one of the NHL’s iron men to the sidelines with a concussion. Amidst the urging of one of the best goalies of this era, Ryan Miller, Bettman had the chance to send a message to NHL enforcers: we will not tolerate hits from behind and hits that can cause serious injury.

Instead, he took the coward’s way out and only suspended Hjalmarsson for two games. Granted, that did bring him back for the return match against the Sabres, but Buffalo knew they couldn’t do anything in retaliation, for fear of getting a longer suspension.

Now, many know me as a Buffalo fan, and might see this as kind of a “homer” view, but put yourself in the skates of the Buffalo Sabres for a moment. You just lost one of your best men to an injury that will most likely sideline him for at least a couple of weeks, and the skater that sidelined him is skating across the ice from you. How is that fair?

The answer: it isn’t.

Second, he’s mismanaged a league that he probably had no business running in the first place.

He’s had two labor disputes in 17 years. Combined, the other commissioners have as many as Bettman does over 36 years combined. (Bud Selig has one (1994), and David Stern has one (1998), as of the writing of this post.)   He just barely eked out a deal in 1994, which wiped out almost half the season. 

In both labor disputes, it seems (to me, at least) that the owners won. The fans certainly didn’t win; they had to deal with shortened seasons, and in the case of 2004, no season at all. The players seemingly had to concede on key things that may have cheated them out of rewards they might have received for their hard work.

In that same vein, let me pose a question for those readers that can remember: How many teams were stationed in Canada before Bettman came to power? The answer: eight (For those of you who couldn’t remember, they are Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Quebec, Ottawa and Toronto). Next question: how many still exist, in the country where hockey was invented?  Six, as Quebec was moved to Colorado, and Winnipeg was moved to Phoenix.

Call me crazy, but where the Quebec move was pretty smart (the Avalanche have sold out every home game since 1995), the move to Phoenix falls flat on its face.

At least in Winnipeg, you have snow. Meanwhile, you have absolutely no interest in the Coyotes, save a couple thousand die-hard fans. At the same time, they’re hemorrhaging money. There was one logical bid that was given consideration, and that was by Jim Balsillie and Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes (who intended to do the smart thing and move the team to a place that actually has ice, Hamilton, Ontario). However, Bettman decided to do the exact opposite, and made a bid to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix.

Now, if there is interest to bring back both teams, why can’t Bettman go the route of former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and just resurrect the whole franchise with a clean slate? (For those of you who don’t know, that’s what Tagliabue did with the Cleveland Browns back in 1999.) There is obviously interest in that; why doesn’t he do it?

The answer: He wants to have a better hockey presence in the United States, in essence “Americanizing” the sport.

Well, then why not take it to places that make sense, such as Hartford, Connecticut (where he had a team once before, but unlike Phoenix, made no attempt to save it) or maybe (and this is a stretch) Alaska, where they actually have ice you can play on, and you don’t need to go hunting for it!

Now, that’s not to say that these teams don’t have their own problems. However, Bettman has made no attempt to save them. Yet, in a place where they have just barely enough room to hold a regulation rink, Bettman will fight tooth and nail to prevent it from going to Canada, where hockey is actually popular.

The third reason we should boot Bettman is because he completely lost most of his television viewing audience. They had a great deal with ABC in 1998 which garnered the NHL hundreds of millions of dollars every season. However, when that fell through, they had to sign a deal with NBC, which paid the league nothing and at times only gives lackluster games. They had a chance to make a deal with ESPN, however, they found the offer ($600 million, despite mediocre ratings) too expensive. 

Now, most teams have a deal with another network (The Sabres, Rangers and Islanders can all be found on MSG, for example), but otherwise, to watch your team, especially out-of-state, you have to either hope it’s a Game of the Week on NBC, or hope it’s being featured on the Outdoor Life Network, otherwise known as Versus.

Now, 30-odd teams fighting for two spots on NBC on Sunday's is patently ridiculous. The fact that it starts in January is even more ridiculous. NBC could start it when the season starts to keep viewers through the games and right into the football games for a full day of sports. For a sports fan like me, that’s a full day of sports, and it makes for happy hockey fans all across the United States.

However, with Bettman’s lackluster bargaining and absolutely abysmal business decisions, he makes even more sports fans unhappy by basically making watching your favorite hockey team (unless you’re willing to crank out more money for cable) a crap-shoot.

Now, I’m not saying that the TV networks aren’t partially to blame, but Bettman started it by pricing himself out of the market, with almost no improving ratings to speak of. $600 million is way too much to be asking for lackluster ratings. He should have kept the TV the way it was, and that’s what probably angered fans the most. If the NFL can keep viewing their games a random mess, why can’t the NHL?

To finish this post, I leave you with a fact. For being part of the proponent toward two lockouts/strikes, being a total coward when it comes to hard hits and keeping most viewers in the dark when it comes to their favorite teams, Bettman got paid almost four million before the lockout, and is currently raking in just seven million, with $5.5 million being his base salary.

I ask you a question: Would a boss that you work for pay that much for total incompetence?

Usually, you’re fired for that sort of thing.