It’s impossible to determine whether all of this would have/could have been avoided if someone other than Gary Bettman had been occupying the commissioner’s chair in the NHL office for the past two decades. But the indisputable fact remains that Bettman has been the constant in all of it.
That is why, when Bettman marks his 20th year as commissioner Feb. 1, the league should announce his exit strategy from the top job, a process that should take place over the next two years. Stenciling the words, “Thank you, fans” across each of the neutral zones in every NHL arena will clearly not cut it this time around.
The league owes its fans. 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. He is the lightning rod for criticism and has done a remarkable job of accepting those terms of employment over the past 20 years.
But it is time. Bettman was brought in 20 years ago by the owners to achieve two primary objectives. The first was to bring a sense of big-time professionalism to the league and to grow the business. The second was to achieve a salary cap for the players.
And he has done both. Lockouts notwithstanding, the league’s financial health has never been more robust. With Bettman’s leadership, the NHL has grown in overall revenues from south of a billion dollars to $3.3 billion per year. You could argue that no league has embraced big-time events the way the NHL has and because of that, it has attracted enormous sponsorship deals and big-time television deals.
Bettman achieved the salary cap seven years ago and forced the players to make an enormous number of concessions this time around. Even though I’m still amazed at how far the league was willing to bend on its initial hardline stance, Bettman has delivered the owners everything they have wanted and has negotiated a deal that will ensure labor peace until at least the 2020-21 season. Bettman will be 68 years old by then and while it’s not inconceivable that he could still be running the NHL at that point, it’s highly unlikely. In all likelihood, Bettman has negotiated his last collective bargaining agreement.
Winston Churchill was regarded as one of the most brilliant wartime leaders in world history, but the same qualities that made him such a great figure during conflict made him ill-suited to times of peace. The same parallels might be made to Bettman (and no, I’m not comparing the greatest wartime leader ever to the commissioner of a sports league.)
Bettman is an unflinching, uncompromising pit bull and that has undoubtedly been a help during labor negotiations. But that same sense of single-minded determination has proven to be a disaster when it comes to the Phoenix Coyotes. Bettman’s foray into Deep South expansion and relocation has caused the league no end of problems, but it’s impossible to ever get the commissioner to admit that it was, and is, a flawed strategy.
So if Bettman isn’t going to be around to negotiate the next CBA, the best thing the league could for its fans is wipe the slate clean and bring in a new commissioner over the next couple of years. Not necessarily because the reason for all of the league’s ills should be left at his doorstep, but because it’s simply time for a change. Perhaps it has something to do with social media and the fact that opinions are so much more readily available, but the passion and anger that greeted the lockout seemed to give way to ambivalence as things progressed.
Replacing Bettman will be a good place to start. But the NHL has far more work to do this time around because it has no new refreshed product and no Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin rivalry to entice fans.
“The biggest thing is that both the players and the league have to realize the disconnect they’ve created,” said Bob Stellick, president of Stellick Marketing Communications. “The first thing they both have to do is show they give a flying fadoo about their fans.”
Along with providing a road map for Bettman’s exit, here are a few more things the league and its players can do in the coming months:
• Mandatory public service. Stellick points out that every Monday, rookies in the NFL are contractually obliged to do community service. That would be a great template to extend to every player in the NHL. Everyone from Sidney Crosby to the fourth-line pluggers should be required to get into schools to do fitness programs and contribute to their communities in a meaningful way.
• Offer the NHL’s Center Ice Package free for this season. That would fulfill the dual objective of apologizing and exposing the product and its sponsors to as many people as possible.
• Announce an immediate 10 percent reduction in everything from ticket prices to concessions to replica jerseys and hold a line on those prices through 2013-14. The fact of the matter is the NHL as a whole will do very well this season because it’s going to pay about 50 percent of salaries and get all its playoff revenues and most of its sponsorship and TV money. It will also have cost certainty, something the fans need to have for the next little while.
“They can’t just charge $12 for a beer and nine bucks for half a submarine sandwich and then thank people for being fans,” Stellick said.
• Establish an agreement to go to the Olympics and reestablish a meaningful schedule for the World Cup that would see it played every four years. Bettman himself said hockey has the world’s greatest and most devoted fans. And he’s right. It’s time to reward them by giving them a guarantee of best-on-best hockey every two years.
• Require all players from both the home and visiting teams, regardless of whether their team won or lost the game, to make an on-ice appearance when they are selected as one of the three stars of the game and have them toss league memorabilia into the crowd as they skate around the ice.
• When the opt-out period expires in eight years, don’t opt out regardless of the situation. This will not be an issue for the players, but it will for the league. Guarantee fans of the NHL a full decade of labor peace.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.