Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gary Bettman Remains Entrenched Through Adversity

What's Gary Bettman's secret?

The National Hockey League's inaugural commissioner will mark his 17th anniversary in the post in February and, although he's helped oversee a dramatic increase in league revenues and a tentative return to more wide-open hockey after the clutching and grabbing era robbed fans of seeing the game's top players fully showcasing their skills earlier this decade, his bullheadedness about expanding into non-traditional hockey markets and inability to land a meaningful U.S. national television contract have left the NHL in a somewhat precarious position.

Bettman's tenure has seen the league lock out its players twice, reducing the 1994-95 season from 84 to 48 games and completely wiping out the entire 2004-05 schedule after owners and the NHL Players Association failed to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements. The NHL became the first major North American sports league to cancel a whole season due to a labour dispute, causing a black eye that's faded somewhat in time as they all eventually do, but turning off many fans in markets like Atlanta, Phoenix and Florida who still hadn't fully embraced the world's fastest team sport like those in original six and early expansion American cities and, especially, in Canada.

Bettman certainly can't be blamed for the mess that the NHLPA now finds itself in, and the introduction of a salary cap along with revenue sharing adds some economic certainty for owners that wasn't there before the current CBA. But with the current deal expiring after the 2010-11 season, one can't feel fully comfortable with the stubborn and often combative 57-year-old lawyer acting on behalf of the league's 30 governors again. That is, if there are still 30 teams left by the time those negotiations begin in earnest.

But as the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case showed earlier this year, Bettman seems to have strong support from almost all of the NHL's owners. But now that the league has taken over the Coyotes, are those folks going to remain happy while footing the bill for a money-losing franchise that seems to have no chance of turning things around as long it remains playing in front of less than 6,000 people in a white elephant arena in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale? Even if I had a few hundred million dollars in my bank account, I know I wouldn't be.

Bettman seems to be wearing rose-coloured glasses while saying that the NHL is in good shape while teams in Tampa, Atlanta, Nashville, Florida and even farther north in Columbus walk precariously along a tightrope and try not to fall off into an abyss like the Coyotes.

It's not just Research In Motion head Jim Balsillie and the hockey fans in Hamilton, Ont. who had high hopes for the maverick executive shuffling the Coyotes north to the home of the Canadian Football League's Tiger Cats who are ticked off at Bettman for fighting the move. Opinion polls show he's unpopular across Canada, he was booed while presenting the Stanley Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins in June, and there are at least two web sites — the terribly written and the moderately more literate but no-less-venomous — dedicated to criticizing the former senior vice-president and general consul of the National Basketball Association.

Bettman must know where some bodies are buried, or have several photos of influential owners in compromising positions, to be able to smugly keep his lucrative job amidst such controversy and rancour. Come on Gary, just between you and me, what's your secret?


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