There have been many news stories and scandals surrounding the NHL that have called into question the integrity and honestly of leadership at the most senior levels in the NHL. The questioning is warranted, and some might even argue that there should be way more than questioning. According to the infamous Allan Walsh of Octagon-Hockey, that might just be happening amongst NHL ownership right now.
Walsh makes his own arguments as to why it is time to remove Bettman from his seat as commissioner of the NHL, but I thought I’d take it a step further and deep-dive into precisely the issue Bettman presents.
Who is Gary Bettman?
Gary Bruce Bettman is the commissioner of the National Hockey League. Before joining the NHL, Bettman worked for the NBA as a Senior Vice President and General Counsel. Bettman took the job of Commissioner in February of 1993. The short answer to who is Gary Bettman? Bettman is a lawyer. After graduating from Cornell University, studying industrial and labor relations, and getting his Juris Doctor from New York University Law School, Bettman has a keen awareness of legal issues in the sports environment. That should make him uniquely positioned to handle scandals like the Blackhawks scandal we saw earlier this week or even labor disagreements. However, he has not ever dealt with these situations well.
Gary Bettman has been a polarizing figure around the NHL since his tenure began. Often credited for multiple expansions and his ability to grow the league from a $400 million league to a $3 billion league, Gary has had the support and backing of the owners for many years. That said, fans have been far more skeptical of his work for a long time, and the current Kyle Beach situation has finally called that credibility with ownership into question.
Expansions and relocations
When Bettman joined the league, the NHL was already underway on an expansion to 24 teams. While the expansion was underway, Bettman would usher in the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the 93′-94′ season. This would happen with relative ease, but as the remainder of the ’90s played out, Bettman would start to run into trouble with his plans to expand to the southern parts of the US. In particular, hockey fans were skeptical of taking away teams like the Winnipeg Jets (they’d be back), the Quebec Nordiques, and the Hartford Whalers. These relocations would lead “real” hockey fans to start to question Gary Bettman’s commitment to the game. The expansion to the south obviously has not been a complete failure, but to hear stories about teams like the Arizona Coyotes and not somewhat question the market research would be disingenuous. In fact, in 2009, the Pheonix Coyotes filed for bankruptcy, and if it was not for new ownership committing to stay in that market, the situation could have been far more disastrous for the league.
Part of the intrigue with bringing Bettman in as the commissioner was his unique experience in labor law. There was a natural appetite from owners of these NHL teams to ensure they got their best deals while making sure the product stayed on the ice. To put the product on the ice, though, NHL owners need players. This area has arguably been one of Bettman’s weakest areas since taking over as NHL commissioner, as there have been three lockouts during his tenure.
The 94′-95′ lockout lasted 104 days and required the season to be shortened from 84 games to 82 games. The major sticking points during this labor disagreement surrounded small-market teams. Something Bettman had always prided himself in being about. Ownership had Bettman go to battle for three critical items: a salary cap, changes to free agency, and the introduction of arbitration to avoid salaries increasing beyond the point of ownership’s comfort. Bettman, rather than finding a middle ground, held firm on his opinions until a miracle effort rescued the season in January 1995. The owners did not get their full salary cap, but they did get the players union to agree to rookie limits, adjustments to the arbitration rules, and restrictions on free agency around age.
There are many folks out there again (primarily NHL owners and not true hockey fans) who place the loss of the 2004-2005 season solely on greed and not Bettman. My argument against that is, as always, Bettman’s job is to get the product on the ice. Ownership greed is part of his responsibility as the negotiator. The disagreements in the 04′-05′ season were all business-related. Still, the real sticking point for Bettman’s involvement in this lockout came down to the league owners giving the power to Bettman to end the lockout altogether. With the vision to be creating solidarity between owners, the league’s governors voted to give Bettman a unilateral veto power as long as eight owners agreed with him. Instead of Bettman using this power, the time expired, and while the players were willing to concede on a salary cap, it was simply too late. Bettman would later release a statement canceling the entire NHL season. An abject failure and a first for any major sports league.
This lockout might be the most baffling of them all. While the league ended up playing a 48-game regular season, the NHL had to have independent meditation, ultimately solving the problem. That said, as the commissioner of a league, ownership and the NHLPA feeling the fastest way to resolution is via mediation means that you’ve failed to negotiate for the 3rd time in your tenure as the league’s head. This isn’t only problematic. It’s symptomatic. You’ve been the captain of a ship that’s run aground three times.
Plain Bad Business
Bettman, during his tenure, has not only suffered from expansion and lockout woes but also had significant issues in getting the right business deals done. From the fiasco that has been negotiating television contracts to his time trying to schedule Olympic Games in a manner that satisfies the league and the NHLPA, Bettman has again failed to deal in the form of good faith. While it might be great for owners and their bottom line, it’s challenging to bring a game globally when you don’t always show up to the most prominent global stages in the world.
Current Challenges and Scandals
Here we are, in the current day. Gary Bettman is still somehow the commissioner of the NHL after all of the previously stated issues. Then, the Kyle Beach story hits. Bettman is called upon to answer on the league’s behalf as to what exactly happened and how the league could have managed to handle a situation so poorly. Had the culture of winning become more important than the culture of humanity? At the end of the day, the simple answer is yes. Bettman’s job was to own that during his press conference, and he failed to do that.
You can get a better idea of the Bettman presser from the article my colleague released yesterday. Still, at the end of the day, Bettman failed to call on the reporter for almost 45-minutes who broke the story, refused to acknowledge that Jon Doe 2 deserved the same benefits as Kyle, and did not reassure people when you told them that a $2 million fine for a multi-billion dollar organization was sufficient when previously, you’ve fined teams $3 million for far less severe infractions. Or when you’ve docked teams draft picks for far less severe violations.
Gary Bettman has proved one thing; he still doesn’t get it.