Gary Bettman, Commissioner For Life


Chris Johnston’s SportsNet story about Gary Bettman’s future is not exactly what hockey fans want to read these days. It would be better to just forget the lockout for a while, letting hockey work its magic instead of reminding everyone about the guy they hate who was responsible for them missing nearly half the season.

(PHOTO: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

There’s some entertainment value to be had from this article, though. The recent ex-Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, Brian Burke, speaks unvarnished truth for exactly one question. Things go off the rails from there.

He can do this as long as he wants

Burke says this early on in the article and as much as I hate it, he’s right. The mastermind of two lockouts has earned the support of the large-market franchise owners for doing their bidding. And he commands at least teeth-gritting loyalty from owners in smaller markets who feel like they owe him something even if he has cost them a season and a half over the last eight years. The chances of him going away anytime soon are slim.

Once we get away from the notion that the owners aren’t going to revolt against Bettman, Burke’s pronouncements get decidedly crazier.

All your expansion markets are belong to Gary.

“The business has grown galactically since Gary took over”

The NHL’s franchise in Arizona has been on life support for some time now, Seattle isn’t ready for NHL relocation, and expanding into Quebec or Kansas City (or Toronto, where the league’s richest franchise holds sway) is barely even on the horizon no matter what some ex-NHLPA execs might say. Claiming hockey dominion over every market from Albemuth to Zaurak is jumping the gun just a bit.

“The league has grown the number of teams (from 26 to 30)”

I understand that I’m a fan of one of the expansion teams from Bettman’s tenure. Still, I can’t go along with the notion that more hockey teams automatically means a better NHL. Expansion teams can thrive, sure – but they can also founder over the course of a decade or more when cashing in on franchise fees is more important to the league than vetting markets and potential ownership groups. Without strong ownership and community outreach – the latter of which has always been here in Nashville, the former a more recent arrival – expansion is mostly a way to generate massive one-time revenues for the league and pad lifetime stats like “Most Teams Created.” (BTW, Bettman would have to go on a mad spree to become the league leader in that category.)

“(T)he electronic footprint has grown” 

There’s a lot that’s good about the NHL’s online presence. I happen to really like Gamecenter Live, for instance. But in our modern world we have internet access in Antarctica, astronauts tweeting from the International Space Station, and a broadband connection to Mars. Simply expanding your electronic footprint is not something to brag about in the 21st Century.

The NHL can’t give me a separate reel for the goalies in each game’s video highlights right now. That’s something it already has the capability to do and for which there would surely be a demand given how much fans and media love to pick goalies apart. Video replays online have come a long way in a relatively short time, but until you give me video of every single statistic-generating play in the game, accessible by clicking on that play in the game log, you don’t get to use technology as a pro-Bettman talking point.

“(H)e’s secured national television contracts” 

Yes, Gary Bettman has secured national TV contracts. He’s also un-secured national television contracts. If a person lands a job, then gets fired from that job, and then lands another less glamorous job with lower pay, would you praise him for landing two jobs?

“(R)evenues have skyrocketed”

The entire world economy has grown during Gary Bettman’s tenure. For NHL team owners to fail at growing revenues in such an environment – one where they have control over ticket, merchandise, and concession prices, not to mention taxpayer-funded stadiums with sweetheart lease deals – would require them to be the single most incompetent group of capitalists ever to work together on cornering a market. I’m certainly willing to listen to debate on that one, but the real measure of Bettman’s effectiveness should be how NHL revenues have grown compared to other professional sports during the same time period. (Admittedly, this doesn’t do him many favors.)

“This guy has been a visionary and a genius.”

His grand vision, if we are to judge by what he’s built his reputation upon, is making sure that every so often hockey fans have to go without the product they gladly fork billions of dollars over to watch. A more realistic statement from Burke would be, “This guy has been the commissioner.” There’s no doubt Bettman has a sharp legal mind, but he uses his powers for evil rather than good so we can’t give him credit for that.

“(Gary Bettman) is a tough man.”

I won’t deny Burke this one. Just look at what Bettman endures seemingly every time he presents the Stanley Cup:

“If I was ever in a foxhole and I looked over and Gary Bettman was next to me with a rifle that would be a good thing.”

Why would you be glad to have Gary Bettman holding a rifle in a foxhole with you? Because some obscure military regulation says you can be court-martialed for not keeping a lawyer with you in your foxhole at all times? Because you don’t need to string barbed wire when you just lock the enemy out? Because he would have a limo waiting to whisk you away before things got too bad?

I’m sure I’m not the target audience for this article, but I can’t really figure out who is…unless Burke, who once worked for Bettman in the 1990s, is fishing for a job with the league. Even a commissioner for life needs to have a replacement lined up for the eventual end of the road.