Gary Bettman: The NHL’s Most Controversial Leader

Imagine thousands of hockey fans cheering loudly after their team has just won the Stanley Cup. Everyone in the building is in a frenzy, when a man in a suit walks out onto centre ice to address the crowd. The fans instantly recognize this man and the moment he opens his mouth, they begin to boo him. What person could possibly draw such ire during this celebration? It is none other than the controversial commissioner of the National Hockey League (NHL), Gary Bettman.

Gary Bettman was hired by the NHL on February 1st, 1993. During his tenure, many people around the hockey world have been highly critical of the decisions he has made to help grow the league. To be fair, Bettman has done some good things in the 22 years he has run the league. This includes increasing revenues, expanding the league to 30 teams, and helping raise the overall awareness of hockey throughout North America. When the Canadian dollar was falling rapidly during the late 1990s, he was able to get support from other American teams to subsidize Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa. One idea that he never really gets credit for is his implementation of the Winter Classic, which is a regular season game played outside on New Years Day that brings the league millions of dollars annually. He even played a part in the return of a hockey franchise to Winnipeg, which was something that many thought would never happen. Bettman was also awarded Sports Executive of the Year in 2014 by both SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily.

This is where the positive aspects of Bettman’s regime ends. What follows are a series of questionable and illogical decisions that many felt have scarred the league for years. First, Bettman awarded franchises to cities in the Southern US, where hockey was not widely known. Second, he has been responsible for labour disputes between the owners and the players resulting in three lockouts. Lastly, his choices on who gets broadcasting rights to hockey games have been a chaotic mess. By investigating and examining the decisions Bettman has made over his career, one will see why he is the most controversial leader in the history of the NHL.

Americanizing the League

The controversy started the day Bettman was hired by the NHL. Arriving as the former vice president of the National Basketball Association (NBA), fans were both confused and upset that the NHL hired someone who seemed unfamiliar with hockey to such a high position. Because Bettman was born and raised in the United States and had a background that did not include hockey, many people were critical of the league’s hire, and thus began the long years of controversy surrounding him.

Early in his tenure, Bettman planned to expand the league by adding more teams. This initially sounded good, until it was revealed that he wanted to relocate teams to the Southern US at the expense of northern franchises such as Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford. This came at a time in the mid-to-late 1990s when the Canadian dollar was plummeting to horrifying lows that pushed many Canadian franchises (with the exception of Toronto and Montreal) to the brink of bankruptcy. As I previously mentioned, while Bettman was able to help save Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver, he was not able to save Quebec and Winnipeg. These unlucky teams were eventually moved to Colorado and Phoenix respectively.

Bettman also had dreams of bringing hockey to other Southern US cities. Already having new teams placed in San Jose and Tampa Bay, he planned to bring in more revenue for the league by expanding and adding more hockey clubs. In addition to the two cites I have already mentioned, Florida, Anaheim, Dallas, Carolina, Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, and Minnesota had an NHL team in action by 2001. Canadian fans call this the “Americanization” of the league.

While Columbus and Minnesota were logical choices for placing a team (as Minnesota had lost their original team, the North Stars, to Dallas after being there since 1967), the other expansion cities chosen by Bettman angered both Canadian and Northern US hockey fans. They felt he was trying to Americanize hockey by placing it in cities where the people had little to no care for the sport.

Proof of this can be found in the attendance rankings for the NHL’s latest season. According to ESPN, with the exception of Tampa and Minnesota, all of Bettman’s expansion cities mentioned above are ranked in the 19-30 range in average attendance. Further proof of this concern is in the total revenue earned by teams, which according to Forbes placed all the teams mentioned 14th or lower. Add to the fact that Atlanta had to relocate to Winnipeg because of huge losses and teams like Florida and Arizona (as the Coyotes changed their name from Phoenix to Arizona) get ridiculed for their poor attendance, you can see why many NHL fans are upset that Bettman poorly chose his expansion cities.

Speaking of Atlanta moving to Winnipeg, when the purchase by True North Sports and Entertainment was completed back in the summer of 2011, Bettman may have felt proud that he was able to bring tradition back to a city that deserved a team. But then again, he may have felt upset deep down. It seemed obvious that he did not want the Thrashers, a team riddled with financial losses and ownership issues, to move away from the south. When the move took place, it was a stark reversal of the Americanization plans which further added to the controversy of Bettman’s expansion plans.

Not only are the fans mad at Bettman for creating franchises that are failing because of their location, they are also upset by his future plans for relocation: Las Vegas. No disrespect to the few people in Vegas who are big hockey fans, but having an NHL team there makes absolutely no sense to me. This has the Arizona Coyotes story written all over it as both cities are located within the same region and both are not known for being big hockey markets. The fact that the NHL was so eager to expand to Vegas so quickly and not to more hockey-driven cities such as Halifax, Hamilton, and Quebec City, proves that Bettman really cares about Americanizing the league.

Bettman’s intentions for expansions were good, but the way he has executed them has been nothing but controversial. For these reasons, many hockey fans in traditional markets may never forgive the commissioner.

What Channel Is The Game On?

One of the first actions that Bettman was pulled off was signing a contract with a TV network to broadcast NHL games. It was important that he did this quickly, as he believed that this was one step towards his ultimate goal of increasing revenue. Again, these numerous contract decisions over the years were not without controversy.

The first of these contracts was made between the NHL and Fox Broadcasting Company. Here, Fox was granted the rights to nationally broadcast hockey games beginning with the 1994-1995 NHL season. At the time, many felt that getting such a big broadcasting company in the United States to sign on board with the NHL was a significant move to grow the league. This was something that no other NHL figure had ever done. However, the signing proved to be controversial amongst Canadian hockey fans as their national hockey broadcaster, CBC, was given the back seat for playoff games. Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette wrote that this schedule was “just another example of how the N.H.L. snubs its nose at the country that invented hockey and its fans.”

A few short years later, the NHL was rapidly losing ratings on Fox-aired games and were in turn, losing an audience. So Bettman struck another deal for nationally broadcasted games. Here, an agreement with ABC and ESPN for $120 million per season for 5 years was made. At the time of its creation, this was the largest contract the NHL had ever constructed. While it was a success for the league during the five years, the years since have been very unlucky and unsuccessful.

Immediately following the lockout, ESPN backed out of a $60 million contract extension as they felt it was overvalued. The NHL was then only able to get a revenue share deal with NBC. In 2005, the league got Comcast to approve broadcasting games on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), which later became Versus. This move was highly criticized by many as they felt the league lost exposure by signing on with a smaller network that few people had as their service provider. This match made in hell lasted until 2011 when Comcast acquired NBC Universal. The NHL then signed them up to a 10 year deal worth over $2 billion, and by 2012, had NBC Sports Network as the replacement for Versus. What was controversial about the signing was that Bettman rejected offers from ESPN, the largest sports network provider in favour of Comcast. Thus, the NHL would not get the exposure that ESPN would provide for hockey.

Bettman wanted to find the best way to make NHL games more accessible to American viewers, but in doing so, he created a more chaotic mess that lowered his reputation as the commissioner and increased the controversy surrounding him.

Locking Out the Players and Fans

Perhaps the most controversial thing that has hampered Bettman’s reputation was the number of labour disputes between the owners and players that resulted in three lockouts. No other time in the history of the NHL did the league cancel a large chunk of the season because of labour problems.

Two short lockouts occurred during two different eras in the NHL, and while they were short, they were significant. The first one occurred prior to the 1994-1995 season and lasted over 100 days between October 1, 1994 and January 11, 1995. The key issue at hand was that the players wanted a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which equally provided money between the management and players, while the owners wished to help the franchises in weaker markets and cap the rising salaries of players. Bettman’s NHL mandate was, according to Sean McIndoe of Grantland, “an aggressive expansion, a new American TV deal, a focus on growth (especially in the southern U.S.), and lasting labor peace […] under the owners’ terms, of course.”

The debates dragged on for months with many new issues debated between the owners and players who were represented by the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA). These debates were regarding a rookie salary cap, changes to the arbitration system, and a loosened free agency system. This also caused a stir with the larger market teams in Toronto, Detroit, Manhattan, Dallas, and Philadelphia, who felt that an extended lockout would outweigh the positives of the new salary cap system and feared the league would cancel the entire season just to help out smaller market teams.

The debate was eventually settled in early January and the season was able to continue, albeit shortened from 84 games to 48. This resulted in 468 lost games, the All Star Game being cancelled, and the teams limited to intra conference games, which means that teams from opposite conferences could not face each other (with the exception of the Stanley Cup Finalists).

A similar lockout occurred most recently in 2012 when the CBA expired and the owners and players could not come to an agreement on terms. While the CBA was the main reason the lockout occurred, there were others issues that emerged during the 119 days such as the introduction of term limits on contracts, the removal of salary arbitration, and changes to free agency. Additionally, the league wanted to implement a system that focused on increasing revenue sharing between owners and a fixed salary cap that wasn’t linked to league revenues.

The NHLPA was not happy with the planned proposal by the NHL, and the two engaged in a five-month debate that struck fear in hockey fans of yet another cancelled season. Much like the 1994 lockout, by the time the season had finally resumed, many significant events were cancelled including the All-Star Game in Columbus (which was played this past season), the Winter Classic between Toronto and Detroit (which was rescheduled to the following season), and over 40% of the originally scheduled games. In the end, the lockout concluded in January and once again Bettman’s reputation took another hit.

The most significant lockout that many consider as the most controversial event of Bettman’s tenure was the one that took place in 2004. Much like the previous two mentioned, the main problem that arose from the lockout was the disagreement between the league and the players over how the CBA should be constructed. The problem was, unlike the last two mentioned, that it took over 10 months for both sides to come to an agreement. Thus, effectively dismantling the entire 2004-05 NHL season. This marked only the second time in league history that the Stanley Cup was not awarded to a team (the first being in 1919 as a result of the Spanish Flu). This was also the first time a North American sports league cancelled an entire season.

The reason for this was because the league, led by Bettman, tried to convince the NHLPA of a salary structure which would link players’ salaries to league revenues. This would guarantee cost certainty, which helped earn the league more money instead of losing it to the players. Plans of cost certainty included a hard salary cap similar to the National Football League (NFL), a soft salary cap similar to the NBA, and a centralized salary negotiation system similar to the Major League Soccer (MLS).

While the plan may have sounded fair, the NHLPA did not agree with the idea as they argued that the system, which always included a salary cap, would not benefit the league and that the system already in place was fine. This resulted in small market teams like Washington, Pittsburgh, and Edmonton insisting that there needed to be a lockout as they believed that it would provide them a financial gain. As a result, the negotiations dragged on for months eventually leading to the cancellation of the entire season by February.

This lockout left a large scar on the league and on Bettman in particular as many people could not understand how an NHL commissioner was able to allow an entire season to be cancelled. In fact, the 2004-2005 lockout was so bad that the effects of it are still felt to this day, from the big market teams, to the salary cap, and to the location of overseas talent playing in the NHL.

The fact that there were three lockouts and nearly two seasons of hockey lost during Bettman’s tenure is enough to enrage hockey fans and is the reason why he has become such a controversial figure.

Final Thoughts

No matter what good things he has done throughout his 20-plus year career as the commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman will forever be known as the untrustworthy leader of the best hockey league in the world. He has become a controversial figure because of his never-ending attempts to Americanize the league through its expansion into Southern States, he has created a chaotic mess in terms of who gets the right to broadcast hockey games in the US, and finally, he was the catalyst of three labour disputes between the owners and players which resulted in three separate lockouts.

I will always be a fan of the greatest sport on the planet, and no matter how dysfunctional the league is, I will still watch the games. To that end, the most controversial figure in the sport of hockey will always loom over the NHL and dishearten fans and critics for years to come. Perhaps that is just what Gary Bettman wanted anyway.

Related Posts