By Stu Hackel
In the aftermath of the lockout, many people have discussed how the NHL should express its regret to fans. ESPN.com’s Pierre Lebrun had a list of 10 things the league could do, the top one being free access to the Center Ice TV package — an idea that others endorse, but it will likely never happen because, as Steve Lepore explained in his Puck The Media blog, it’s not solely the property of the league to give away.
Ken Campbell of The Hockey News had another idea: Fire Gary Bettman.
“The league owes its fans,” Campbell argues. “And one way it can display that it is truly willing to turn the page is to tell Bettman that he must go. It’s not because all of this is necessarily Bettman’s fault because he has been doing the bidding of his employers, but the reality is that he has been the central character of three lockouts and history will show his name will always be associated with those work stoppages before anything else.”
There was no more reviled figure during the lockout than Bettman, not even Don Fehr, who probably finished second. Bettman was savaged in blogs, in online magazines (Grantland‘s Bill Simmons, for one, really carved him up) on social media and on video (Read: Best NHL Lockout Songs and Parodies). And, unfortunately, he is an easy target. Bettman never does himself any favors with his generally abrasive style, his temper tantrums (whether genuine or contrived), and his uncomfortable manner; TSN’s camera crew caught him at his glowering best in their “escalator shot” which they used frequently during the past month or so — and here’s a shortened version; the original is probably twice as long, his expression and gaze unchanged for the entire ride.
Of course, the commissioner didn’t need this lockout to plunge on the fans’ popularity charts. He was already way down there, unrivaled in hockey’s dislike department, a status he’s held for most of his nearly 20 years on the job. Why that is and how justified it is can be debated, but the animus itself is a fact and this third lockout merely attached an anchor to his leg as he submerged further.
But like suggestions that the league give away the Center Ice package, a Bettman dismissal probably won’t be a perk used to pacify fans who feel they are owed something once the game returns to the ice. Being commish is not a popularity contest, other than among the owners, and if he’s going to go — which I tend to doubt he will — it will be because they don’t like the deal he’s made with the players, and feel the lockout itself was a mistake or that he misled them somehow. Those are the major criteria by which his bosses will judge him and, on a gut level, I don’t sense that the majority hold those opinions.
That’s not to say, however, the Board of Governors won’t have some questions for him when they meet on Wednesday to ratify the new CBA. They may want to know why the deal couldn’t have been wrapped up a month ago when the players agreed on the 50-50 split of HRR. They may query him on not being able to grind the NHLPA down on all the contracting rights, especially free agency and the package of items that leave players coming out of Entry Level deals with the same rights as before. They may ask why he agreed to potentially expose them financially, even if it’s a remote possibility, on the players’ new pension plan. They may second guess him on the league’s opening offer and subsequent tactics that were intended to weaken the union but only unified it.
Those are not insignificant things, and he’ll certainly be prepared with his response. But unless they were expecting — or were unrealistically promised — a thrashing of the PA, Bettman’s results should not be terribly disappointing to the Board. He got them their 50-50 split — the “industry standard” for salary cap leagues — and he was able to claw back some contracting rights that enabled cap circumvention. He did so while facing a newly strengthened union, led by a negotiator in Fehr who was at least his equal. And now it’s clear that, unlike 2004-05, neither his side nor the opposition had the will to torpedo the season in order to get its way.
The players don’t seem overjoyed with the outcome. “It‘s the best deal we could have gotten if we wanted to save the season,” the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik told Josh Yohe and Bob Rossi of The Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “If we wanted to go down another avenue, risk missing the season and going to litigation, maybe we could have gotten a better deal. That’s anyone’s guess. Guys wanted to play. If you look at the deal, the pension was the one tangible thing that improved compared to last time. Everything else was status quo or we gave back a little.”
So if the players aren’t thrilled, the owners are probably pleased. And if they are not, if they are equally bereft of joy, well, as they say, the sign of a successful negotiation is that both sides are unhappy.
In the immediate aftermath of the lockout, Bettman’s future became a topic for media types in Canada, who have always had difficult time with an American in charge of the NHL, especially this American who, unlike his predecessor John Ziegler, had no background in the game when he came to the job, and they expressed similar sentiments about Fehr during the lockout, saying that of all the negotiators, he was somehow less concerned about the league’s future as the only one who “had no skin in the game.” It was a laughable accusation to say the least, even metaphorically. Suddenly, Bettman — who had remained to them the outsider from the NBA even after 20 years — was a hockey guy, or at least the devil they know, deemed to have paid his dues, having been around longer than the more recent American outsider, this one from baseball. In fact, the ones with the most “skin in the game” are the players who, unlike everyone else at the table, actually get their skins cut, their bones broken, their ligaments torn and their heads rattled while playing the game.
Hours after the tentative deal had been reached, the crew at Sportsnet wondered about Bettman’s plight in this segment:
Nick Kypreos testified that Bettman caved in on some matters, like the salary cap for Year 2, at the last minute in order to salvage the season, and that for once he acted not like the owners’ commissioner but the commissioner of the whole game, saying, “Although many owners might have some questions for him, he put the game first.” Both Kypreos and John Shannon believed that the small market teams might howl because the cap moved and it will enable high revenue clubs to snag more free agents. It’s a specious argument, because in Year 3, the cap goes right down to no more than $60 million, Bettman’s original position, so the wealthy clubs will have to start unloading players. The one-year compromise helped seal the deal.
As a result, the Sportsnet guys wanted to portray Bettman as the man who saved the game (a position Don Cherry also took on Twitter, and that provoked outrageous laughter from some). Solving problems of your own creation does not make one a saint and this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen Bettman in that role. The Dead Puck Era was largely his doing, his lack of understanding of the game on the ice permitting a boring product to endure until the last lockout when, lo and behold, he sought to win fans back by allowing “The New Rules” that opened up the game. So saying the man who helped engineer the lockout was its hero in the end was, according to one fan on Twitter, like saying that the iceberg was the star of the film Titanic.
Over on TSN, The Reporters panel of SI’s Michael Farber, The National Post‘s Bruce Arthur, The Toronto Sun‘s Steve Simmons and host Dave Hodge, each weighed in on Bettman’s future for Michael Landsburg on his On The Record show (video). All had arresting observations on whether the commissioner would keep his job.
Farber: “I spoke to somebody today who was part of the negotiations from the owners’ side and he thinks that Bettman is very solid. He characterized it as ‘whining’ from a couple of places, but there is no move to oust Bettman.”
Arthur: “Here’s the thing when you look at winners and losers in this lockout. It’s what did you expect. I think NHL owners expected to have this settled in November. They could have had it settled by about Jan. 10, (he meant Dec. 10 — SH) and Bettman miscalculated and cost them an extra month and cost them a few more things. That being said, he has an enormous amount of power, his idol David Stern lasted 30 years on the job, he’s not quite 20 years in now, he’s going to want to hold on to power. The question is going to be whether owners are disappointed enough in this deal and his tenure to oust him. I’m not sure we’re there yet.”
Simmons: “You also have to understand who the owners are. The majority of them are people he recruited to those positions. He has a lot of people onside. The ones who are barking are not powerful enough.”
Hodge: “There was credible talk yesterday that it might not be a good idea for Gary Bettman to present the Stanley Cup. So I don’t think he’s as strong as ever if anyone thinks it’s not a good idea. And if you’ve got a job that doesn’t allow you to do your job because people hate you enough to not allow you to want to do it, I’m not sure how long you want to hang around and I’m not sure how long the people who are paying you want you to hang around as long as you might otherwise.”
If it’s up to Bettman, LeBrun thinks he won’t be going anywhere, saying on one of many post-lockout segments over TSN (video), “He wants to be around for the league’s centennial in 2017. That means a lot to him. Whether he’s around for the next CBA, I think that would surprise me. I think there will be new leadership on the NHL end in 10 years.”
We all have our opinions on whether Gary Bettman should stay or go, whether we like him or not or approve of the job he’s done or not. For me, his performance has always been a goulash of good and bad. His record in labor relations is awful, at least from a fans’ perspective, but if it hadn’t been Bettman growling at the union, it would have been someone else. Campbell is right: lockouts will define Bettman’s tenure more than anything and he’s earned that legacy at the behest of the owners, even if he has guided their decisions and helped form their strategies. He was hired to be a wartime consigliere and, from that sad perspective, he’s played the role as well as anyone could. If they want him to continue in it, he will. If they want to change their approach to labor relations and believe he can be effective in that capacity, he will give it his best.
Unless he over-promised and under-delivered, or there’s a seismic shift in the tectonic plates beneath the Board of Governors, Gary Bettman isn’t going anywhere.
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