Jim Kelley is a sportswriter with CNNSI.com. He recently wrote posted this article about the NHL's Commissioner: "So Far So Good: Despite a few hiccups, Gary Bettman's done a solid job."
I must confess that my first thought was, "well that's convincing proof that SI doesn't drug test its writers".
Now, Mr. Kelley appears to make some telling points but the whole is unconvincing. He commits two critical errors. First, he cherry picks Bettman's achievements over 15 years; Bettman's multitude of failures, errors and biases go studiously unrecorded. (Two work stoppages ten years apart? A decade-long failure to address the scoring-smothering, TV-ratings-diminishing, attendance-killing neutral zone trap? Letting a broadcaster dictate schedules and even whether overtimes are shown or not? All unmentioned.) Second, some things which he records as achievements are not necessarily achievements. He notes, for example, breaking Goodenow and the union as a success. I fail to see how one finds a positive in Bettman's ensuring that the people who actually earn the money should be beaten down be precluded from keeping the lion's share of it and the balance restored to owners who made a series of stupid decisions from which they want to be protected. It's corporate welfare from within the NHL. If one wants to chalk that up as a Bettman achievement in being the hatchet man for the owners, find. Just don't lie to me that it is a gain for the NHL; the NHL is the players and teams together, not just the owners of the teams. It's the nonviolent equivalent of snowing me that the Carnegie thugs were Helping the Industry rather than just the plutocrats who grew rich off of it.
As a Canadian, though, I find Kelley's complete omission of Bettman's loathing for Canadian franchises astounding. The support for small markets that Kelley advances as one of Bettman's achievements is disingenuous to the point of deceit. Bettman's support for smaller markets is conditional upon two things: the franchise must not have a bigger, more glamorous alternative and the small market in question must be American. If the Winnipeg Jets or the Quebec Nordiques had received a quarter of the support from Bettman that the Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes have had they would still be in their home towns. Ditto the Hartford Whalers, a small market which didn't fit Bettman's long held dream: a TV-contract rich, almost wholly American NHL spread across the whole of the United States, strong in markets so little conversant with hockey that a child saying "puck" is slapped and told to watch his mouth.* This dream of Bettman's is more fantasy and a downright masturbatory one at that, given how it, like erotic wishes, is largely divorced from reality.
Bettman's dislike of Canadian markets is obvious, and it is infuriating that the American sports media studiously pretends not to notice it, or, equally likely, they share it. It is a measure of Kelley's insularity, though, that he neglects to mention the fact that while Canadian franchises are one-sixth of the teams they generate one-third of its revenues. (Scott Burnside does not make the same mistake, which may be the difference between a freelancer who actually does his job rather as opposed to a hack opinion columnist, but I digress.)
Last summer's nonsense with the Nashville Predators brought it out into the open, miles past any deniability. The simple fact was that Hamilton's bid for the Predators was backed by by massive pre-sales of season's tickets, huge money and by RIM's Jim Balsillie, a man who the NHL had, in a different case, had already cleared as an acceptable owner. (Balsillie had sought to buy the Penguins, but walked away when the NHL loaded on a series of last-minute restrictions that would have applied to him only and no other NHL owner.) Had a fresh-market American offer come in with one third as good a purchaser's CV as the Balsillie bid Bettman would have helped load the trucks. Don't forget, either, that Bettman's fallback position in the event that keeping the Predators in Nashville became impossible was a buyout to move the team to Kansas City. The NHL has already dismally failed there once and the KC group simply did not have the deep pockets and fan base that the Hamilton bid did, nor were they willing to pay as much money for the franchise. (One also notes that Bettman was furious that Balsillie went ahead and secured a lease and started to sell seasons' tickets in Hamilton, but didn't have a word of complaint about the KC group having an arena and selling box suites. In fact, Balsillie's actions were actually in line with the requirements of the NHL: "Having an arena and proving that the market can support an NHL franchise are both requirements spelled out in the NHL's bylaws as requirements for applying to relocate an NHL franchise".) In Bettman's world, piss-poor American choices are always better than rich and devoted Canadian ones, even when the move is guaranteed to increase the NHL's revenues. It is fascinating to note that the KC bid began to shrink as the drama progressed, which is an astute business move on their part. Why on earth should the KC bunch pay more if the fix is in for them as far as Gary Bettman is concerned?
Sorry, Mr. Kelley. Mr. Bettman having a résumé centred around making sure that rich owners never pay for their mistakes, that expansion is governed by what one wants rather than what is doable, that TV contracts are always botched, that labour peace won't be obtained and that ensuring that the country that is the heart and soul and engine of the game is treated like dirt is not commendable. Period.
I'll be glad when Bettman is gone. And I strongly suggest that Kelley either follow him, or write about something that he bothers to find out about.
* - Methinks that the best comment on just how disconnected Carolina is from its Stanley Cup quality team is found in this satirical Onion post:
Carolina Residents Confused, Terrified As Victorious Hurricane Players Riot In Streets
June 22, 2006 | Onion Sports
RALEIGH, NC—Only hours after the Carolina Hurricanes won the NHL Championship Monday night in a hard-fought Game 7 against the Edmonton Oilers, North Carolina Gov. Michael Easley mobilized the National Guard to contain over two dozen members of what he described as "some sort of depraved, violent, heretofore unheard-of gang calling themselves the Hurricanes."