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SLATE LAKE… You either really like him or really hate him. His volume of detractors seems to outdistance the number of people in his corner. It took me several years to figure out where I really stood on this man. Like anybody in the public realm, even if you like him he has most likely irked you somewhere along the way. At the end of the day though his overall body of work and accomplishments presiding over the greatest league of the greatest sport on the planet have been really good and I believe that’s why it’s safe to say that the National Hockey League has never been better and that is in large part due to the vision and efforts of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He has been elected to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this fall and for me, I believe this is a much-deserved honor. He will be brought in in the Builder category. There are those who are opposed to this, and I was actually caught off guard by it. I had literally never contemplated that he would be brought in at this time.
I imagined the day would come at some point, but not now. Back in 1993 when he was brought into the league I was a bit incredulous that the league would bring in a guy from the NBA. I chide myself over that bit of pettiness now. Whoever was behind the push to bring him aboard got the right person and probably the smartest guy in the room. He is firm, but usually fair and like it or not, when it comes to labor negotiations he is a master. His field of endeavor while at Cornell University (which has a storied hockey program) was in Industrial and Labor Relations. He obtained a Law Degree at New York University of Law as well. His even keeled demeanor makes him an ideal representative of the league and he is media savvy on top of all else.
When he comes out annually to award the Stanley Cup to the Championship team he is usually booed lustily, and while I view that as embarrassing to the league, I kind of get it. I may have done the same years back, but I wouldn’t do so now. I would be standing and applauding him. But for fans that aren’t with him there a few issues to delve into. In his tenure there have been three labor lockouts. A labor “strike” is an event initiated by employees of a company to force a resolution to a labor dispute. A “lockout” is an event initiated by the employer to resolve a labor dispute they view as unfavorable to them. This has irritated some of the league fan base to great lengths and has left Bettman as the bullseye on the target to direct their angst toward. I understand that too, I was right there with some of them until I stood back and thought things through a bit.
If you knew and understood some of the history of the league and its business affairs over their 100 plus years of operation you would not only have a foundation of knowledge to understand where the league has been business-wise (not always very good) to where it was when Bettman was hired (still not too good) to where it is now. (never on more solid ground financially) This league has, on more than one occasion, teetered upon financial insolvency. That’s right. As in possibly folding the tent and calling it a day. If you are interested in this, I would recommend that you pick up the book; The NHL; 100 years of On-ice Action and Boardroom Battles, by D’Arcy Jennish. It very clearly outlines the travails of the league over it’s history and it hasn’t always been sunshine and crumpets. I firmly believe that it took Bettman a few seasons to get a feel for the league and its idiosyncrasies while developing a vision for the future of the game and the league and then to set out implementing and fashioning the “new” NHL. The league had revenues of about $400mil when Bettman took over in 1993 and is at $4bil plus now.
To get to that level there was going to be some pain. The lockouts provided that for fans and players alike. I believe that to an extent, the players wanted to continue to play while negotiating CBA’s. The owners took that off the table with the labor “stoppages” as they prefer to call them. Their main contention was a fight for a salary cap, or “cost certainty” in owners-speak in the 2004-05 lockout. They prevailed but losing an entire season to the process left quite a bad taste in some fans mouths that still lingers. I was irked but thought it through from a business perspective and now it makes more sense to me. In the end, if it has provided a base for the league to get where it is now financially speaking, then it served its purpose. The league has never done better financially, and the players have vastly benefitted from that too. The escrow provision in the CBA continues to be contentious for the players and sadly, that will probably be the basis for the next lockout, which could take place if the NHLPA decides to exercise their opt-out provision in September of 2019 or when the current CBA expires at the end of the 2021-22 season. My opinion is that the players will wish to delete the Escrow provision from the CBA and the owners will lock them out. To explain that would take another entire column.
Another lockout left fans with a half season during the 2012-13 timeframe and that came about when the owners wanted to reconfigure the percentages of revenue distribution more to their liking then they had to agree to in the prior lockout. They prevailed again but a half season was saved. More recently I winced when Bettman danced around a question about the concussion litigation brought forward by some former players at a presser before the SC finals began. His response was unsatisfactory for me. I always need to remind myself that he is an attorney and he functions at the behest of what the owners want even if his personal views differ.
At the end of this day the NHL is on solid ice. The game has never been more popular, better played, as well as a bit safer for those who play it, (with some future tweaks still necessary) has never had better television exposure, marketing, merchandise, athletes, revenues, and international exposure. That is the result of the vision, hard work and efforts of one Gary Bruce Bettman. He didn’t do it alone and will be the first to say so. But make no mistake, he is the guy that has driven this Zamboni. Congrats Mr. Bettman, well done… PEACE