Gary Bettman. The name itself conjures up strong emotions among hockey fans - very little of it positive. The booing at the presentation of the Stanley Cup, or if he's ever featured on the jumbotron at any game. Some have even called for someone else to present the Cup to the winner, so this sacred moment in sports won't be sullied any longer by his presence. Bettman has inspired websites calling for his head on a pike, such as FireBettman.com and GaryBettmanSucks.com (the banner at the top is a nice, Thoreau-esque touch). The blog FoodCourtLunch.com wrote an open letter to him last year begging him to leave. Pundits from Canada to Outer Mongolia would love nothing more than for him to quit. According to a report on Toronto's The Fan 590AM, he might be considering just that - although the prospect is dim that Major League Baseball would want him.
A renewed irritation at Bettman arose last season with the Phoenix Coyotes debacle. The team went bankrupt, and needed a new owner. Bettman and the NHL ownership board wanted the team to remain in Phoenix, while many Canadians wanted to see the team sold to Research in Motion owner and Blackberry founder Jim Balsille and moved back to Winnipeg, where it had left in 1997. Balsille wanted to move it to Hamilton, Ontario, where NHL hockey had also failed, albeit in 1925. These fans of Northward expansion, or returning something back to where it belonged, were outraged when the NHL purchased the Coyotes to right the ship, and then sell it to a private ownership group that would keep the team in the desert.
"Anti-Canadian!" they cried. "Bettman hates Canada!" "Stop ruining hockey!" On and on, people jeered the decision, even through the Coyotes outstanding 2009-2010 season. The dark cloud and uncertainty still haven't parted over the team, who has the lowest attendance in the league. People use Phoenix as a metaphor for Bettman's failures as a commissioner. Is his expansionism a problem, though? Has he actually accomplished positive things for the league? Or, as many have argued, has he killed the entire sport?
Bettman became commissioner of the NHL in 1993 after a tenure serving as the senior vice president of the NBA. He worked towards the establishment of a salary cap system in that league that would later be copied as part of the post-2005 work stoppage Collective Bargaining Agreement (more on that later).
Upon his arrival in the NHL, expansion to the Southern "nontraditional" markets was already underway - the San Jose Sharks came into the league in 1991 and the Tampa Bay Lightning had begun their time in the league in 1992 and plans were already in the works to expand to both Miami and Anaheim. In 1993 the Minnesota North Stars officially moved to Dallas. The Sun Belt expansion was not an invention of Gary Bettman's, but it was an idea that he usually gets blame for - and an idea that is usually denied as even existing.
Despite the Cup wins of both the Lightning (2003) and the Carolina Hurricanes (2006), as well as the victories of the Anaheim Ducks (2007) and the Stars (1999), monetarily teams from the Southern United States have not done well. Dallas itself is currently trying to find new owners, and the Nashville Predators and Lightning have had issues with stability in that department as well. Any ownership controversy has automatically spawned rumors of movement to Canada, usually back to Quebec City or Winnipeg.
In truth, the only southern teams that ranked in the NHL's top 20 in attendance last season were Dallas and San Jose. Tampa Bay was 21st, Carolina 23rd, Anaheim 24th, Florida 25th, Nashville 26th, the Atlanta Thrashers 27th, and the Phoenix Coyotes 30th. This does not exactly lend credence to the NHL's expansionist idea that success will come in these markets, one that Bettman was commissioner for a little over half of. Was this worth the 1994-1995 work stoppage that had owners fuming over revenue sharing to the smaller market teams? While anything involving a death threat from Chris Chelios might not be considered a success, the expansion continued.
If you determine Sun Belt success by attendance alone, it doesn't give the big picture, nor does it take into consideration factors that are out of Bettman's control - like team winning percentage, quality general managers, good drafting, and the like. Success brings fans, and until the teams in the league's basement are successful, people will stay away. As far as the growth of the sport, and growing future fans in these new markets, the league has been incredibly successful. Rinks are being built and mite hockey leagues (as well as beer leagues and amateur leagues such as the Atlanta Amateur Hockey League) are popping up in places unheard of ten years ago.
College hockey is particularly successful, with teams from Florida and south Georgia competing in tournaments. Metro Atlanta colleges such as the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State University, and Georgia State University have club hockey programs that occasionally play in tournaments with the big boys of NCAA Division I hockey. The metro Atlanta high schools have teams as well, with Kennesaw Mountain High School graduate Vinny Saponari being the first native born Georgian to be drafted into the NHL (Atlanta Thrashers, 2008 draft, 4th round, 94th overall).
The Atlanta Thrashers support the local hockey scene with clinics and sponsorship. Would the growth of the sport here be possible without an NHL franchise? Maybe, but it wouldn't be as strong. Creating a fanbase and growing children into fans of an NHL team and the game in general is exactly what the league needs to do to sustain its business model, and Southern expansion has done that. Peter over at Hoosier Hockey has a much more in-depth analysis that is worth checking out, and it comes to the same conclusion - it works.
Bettman also gets blamed for the ruination of the game's rules in favor of making money. Gone are the clutch and grab days of the mid to late 90s, where penalties were called with lighter frequency. Now players can't forcibly hold back the opposition's scorers, the two-line pass rule is a thing of the past, there's a trapezoidal constraint over the goalie, and ties have been replaced with the shoot-out, which might be the worst invention in the history of sport.
The commissioner's argument is that high scoring games bring in the casual viewer/fan, and that has merit. The TV audience for a Pittsburgh Penguins/Washington Capitals game, for example, will be higher than the audience for a New Jersey Devils/Minnesota Wild game, and that isn't a thing to do with market size. If you have two teams playing total shut down defense for two and a half hours, scoring one goal total, that's not going to entice anyone to watch. I've attended games like that, and I hate it from a fan's perspective sitting in the stands - and I'm an individual that would watch kittens play hockey if you put skates on them. I empathize with the purists, and I tend to lean that way as well, but I understand the NHL's reasoning behind the rule changes.
Gary Bettman most often gets lumped into blame for the the 2005 work stoppage, something that Major League Baseball has dealt with in the past, and that both the NFL and NBA might have to worry about in the near future. Player salaries were getting out of control, and teams who made the most money were able to afford the best players, marginalizing the chances for smaller market teams to get a star and retain a star.
The CBA gave birth to the salary cap, adjusted for the economy and league revenue every season. Basically, you get what your team can afford, as long as it's not more than the league says that you should get. It has its pros and cons - parity and giving each team a chance at success can grow smaller markets and forces teams to look towards the draft and hiring of a solid coaching staff for success, not just throwing money at people who can play. It, of course, causes problems as well, as we saw this summer with the Ilya Kovalchuk issue.
Gone are the days where a team can just pay a player. In Kovy's case the Devils had to work to get under the cap, got reprimanded for purposefully trying to circumvent it, and lost numerous assets that could hurt the prospects of the franchise's success for a few seasons. Is this progress? Possibly not, but it was New Jersey's decision to sign him, and sign him for slightly less than he thought that he was worth. The market dictates the prices of the free agents, and limits the inflated paychecks to where any team, realistically, has the chance to sign the big guns.
What if, then, the rumors are true and Bettman would like to take over Major League Baseball when Bud Selig retires? What would Bettman's economically conscious style bring to the league? Keep in mind that the market for baseball is much larger in America than hockey's is, and therefore more money is taken in and spent. Would a salary cap be necessary? While the cap hasn't exactly pulled the New York Islanders out of the league's basement (though some can say that it's forced the New Jersey Devils down into it), it has still helped the Isles by limiting teams in their division from stockpiling every good player in the league.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin, yes, but they got them through drafting - and in order to sign them to contracts they've had to limit their options elsewhere on the team - for example, in finding a winger for Crosby. Could something like this help, say, the Pittsburgh Pirates? Would their league-leading 17-year losing streak come to an end - or at least be more likely to end? Could they benefit from a system that would make it impossible for the Cardinals to have both Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday?
Would baseball expansionism take hold, moving the league out of just the U.S. and Canada and potentially into Latin American countries - could Puerto Rico get a full-time MLB team instead of just borrowing the Expos and then making due with whoever came down to play an exhibition game? There are markets who are hungry for a chance like a MLB team, and these markets absolutely churn out quality baseball players. Expansionism would be more successful in MLB than in the NHL as far as success at the gate goes.
Not that there's any chance of Bettman becoming the next commish of baseball, but how amusing would it be that he would go to the league that former MLBPA head Donald Fehr just left... left to become the head of the NHLPA? Apparently the North American sports leagues are more nepotistic than a European family tree. League hopping and appointments abound.