What’s wrong with hockey? — Part I: Gary Bettman

NHLHS NHL correspondent Bill Kellett begins his four part series with What’s wrong with hockey? Part I: Gary Bettman. Keep checking in this week for the entire series as NHLHS dives in to the controversial subject.

It has been a tumultuous tenure to say the least. The NHL has met with many setbacks and many advances under his reign, but no matter what happens it always seems Gary Bettman is the most hated leader of any of the major sports.

After taking over as NHL commissioner in February of 1993, Bettman in a time that has seen the NHL has undergo some vast changes; some positive, some negative and many just downright bizarre.

Througout his 18 years on the job the NHL has gone from being the class of the sporting world with the emergence of Wayne Gretzky as a legitimate star in the eyes of the American sports fan. It has also experienced a dramatic downturn in interest. Where it has gotten to the point of most of the major U.S. networks would rather play rodeo or poker before the NHL. It has been a sad sad existence the last number of years for the sport and though Bettman is not solely to blame, it is hard to discount his impact on the way the game is turning out.

The biggest issue with Bettman is his inability to admit fault. A respectful commissioner would make a mistake and then rectify it to the public. Bettman stubbornly follows through with his plan and those two question are not taken seriously. It has been a common theme in Bettmans press conferences that the surly side of him comes out. When questioned about anything that may be perceived as wrong, he gets defensive and trys to spin it in a positive way.

The most recent case in point is the disasterous situation with the Phoenix Coyotes. The team is failing miserably at the gate and they are bleeding a sea of red financially. Even the city of Glendale has given up hope and the team looks destined to relocate, whether it be to Winnipeg or some other city. Bettman flew from his cushy office in New York to Phoenix before the Coyotes took on the Vancouver Canucks to say…. absolutely nothing.

He still “believes” in this franchise. In his mind it can still be saved. Its all the big bad fault of the city and the Goldwater institute. Notice no mention of any fault on his or the leagues part? No discussion of the fact that putting a hockey team in the middle of the desert may have been less than a good idea?

This is the world of the commissioner. Whether he is looking at the league through rose coloured glasses or whether he is just plain blind. Bettman’s world is one where the NHL is all perfect all the time.

Sadly there will be several more franchises shifting addresses in the coming years — possibly months. Atlanta, Florida, Nashville, Carolina, Tampa Bay and even Columbus all have their own financial concerns which will all have to be dealt with. Even though putting teams in markets such as these is ludicrous to begin with, the fact that they could move is a black mark on the league.

The headshot issue is one that is now overtaking the hockey landscape. Bettman has been slow to react. He has not doled out significant punishment for these issues. He has not dealt with the fact that players today are bigger, faster, stronger than in other generations. He has failed to heed the concerns of the paying customer, the fan. Truth be told Bettman is clueless on these issues.

He has been unable to secure a television deal with any major networks. They presided on Versus for a time and were often preemted by fishing or skeet shooting or whatever kind of sport was more in the psyche of the American public.

Every issue that I will be exploring in my series Bettman has a hand in. Ultimately it is his responisbility to set the league on the right course — so far it is farther off course than can even be imagined.

It was revealed this week that Bettman had signed a new five-year contract back in November. It was covered up. Why the secrecy? Becuase it would have caused a media storm. Bettman is less popular in some circles than cockroaches — its funny how I would use that term as it seems Bettman can survive anything. Through the whole Coyotes debacle. Through the headshots issue. Through the TV deals (or lack thereoff), through the ownership shuffle which often ends in some going to jail. Through it all Bettman still remains standing. There is an old saying that in a nuclear disaster the only things that would remain are cockroaches and twinkies. Maybe we should add one more thing to that list…. Gary Bettman