Why You Shouldn’t Boo Gary Bettman

One: Because jeering at people is mean and makes me sad, and we should all love each other instead. Two: Because how do you think Gary Bettman explains the booing to his kids? Three: Because your team just won the Holy Grail of sports after enduring several grueling weeks of agony, grit, luck, hard work, blood, sweat and tears, and instead of reveling in the euphoria that will last a lifetime, you scrape up vestiges of negativity and hiss at the man who represents the league you claim love so much? It boggles my mind.

But the most glaring reason the Gary Bettman boobirds bother me so much is because they display such woeful ignorance. And I know you people are not stupid.

Often, the insults are simply indicative of bigotry. Some Canadians hate the fact that Bettman is American, because the place of his birth allegedly means that he lacks an innate passion and appreciation for The Game. Bettman is also Jewish, a fun fact that was exploited with particular vehemence at several points during the 2012 lockout, because what screams originality like a good ol’ “greedy Jews” joke? (Or maybe I’m just extra-sensitive because, like Gary, I’m Jewish, American, and a resident of New Jersey. Represent!)

Gary Bettman has been compared to more villains (both historical and fictional) than I care to count. Sure, he deserves his fair share of blame for a fair share of NHL-related happenings (or, in the case of the missing half of the 2012-13 NHL season, non-happenings)—but no more than his fair share. You can’t expose the bad without also pointing out the good. Why is the Commish vilified so extensively and so absolutely? Truth be told, a vast majority of the “Bettman Sucks” hype lacks any substance whatsoever.

Hearing the word “lockout” tends to send NHL fans into convulsions of rage, so I’ll try not to harp on this topic more than necessary, but it’s understandably impossible to discuss Gary Bettman’s public image problem without alluding to the decades of labor unrest. The fact that Bettman was at the league’s helm during three work stoppages is telling, to be sure, but telling of what, exactly? As the popular saying goes, it takes two to tango, and while Gary was the guy running the show for the trifecta of messy legal battles, he tangoed with a total of four NHLPA bosses over the past two decades. He may be sly, he may be calculating, he may be cold, and he may be vain, (not that I’m suggesting any of these) but the men across the table from him all these years ranged from questionably moral to downright criminal (hello and goodbye, Alan Eagleson).

Meanwhile, does anyone remember Donald Fehr? Mr. Baseball, for all intents and purposes, sailed his yacht down the Hudson after this year’s Collective Bargaining Agreement was finally signed—no thanks to him. (I heard that he showed up 90 minutes late to an important meeting and put three ideas on the table, but he hadn’t calculated any of the numbers on what he was offering, so it was basically a complete waste of time for everybody.) Susan Foster, partner of the late Carl Brewer and players’ rights trailblazer, offered me an insider’s look at the procedings when I interviewed her during the recent lockout. She noted that the circumstances of Donald Fehr’s appointment as NHLPA boss were very suspicious; he was on the phone with the group in Chicago within hours of Paul Kelly’s termination, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would eventually become as the next Executive Director. Plus, the employment arrangement that Fehr cut for himself seems tremendously self-serving. He could live in New York and write a book while heading up the CBA negotiations.

Alas, I’ll stop ranting about the evils of Don Fehr before the pot has a chance to call the kettle black. I only brought him up in order to highlight two little known Gary Bettman incidents.

The first involves Ms. Foster, who has devoted her life to helping out retired NHL players. Many former NHLers not named Gretzky or Howe were in dire straits because of an inadequate pension fund, and Foster has worked tirelessly over the years to remedy the league’s glaring oversights. Thanks to her efforts, the NHL and NHLPA agreed last fall to continue financing the Senior Player Benefit Plan for the old-timers and, in January, pledged to improve the benefit program even more.

Foster explained to me, warm smile noticeable in her tone of voice, Bettman’s hands-on involvement in the process:

He has been on board from the beginning. Back in July, I prepared a letter in which we expressed our gratitude and explained why these payments have been so helpful. We asked the NHL and the NHLPA to respectfully consider continuing these payments in the future. It was signed by about 24 of the older players who attend these luncheons, like Harry Howell, Bob Baun, Bob Nevin, Peter Conacher, and countless others.

A copy was sent to Gary Bettman and the Players’ Association. Gary Bettman—on the eve of the lockout—emailed me, thanking me for that letter, and saying that I should rest assured that the NHL was committed to continuing to support the former players. There was never an acknowledgment from the NHLPA regarding that letter. (In the end, they agreed to cooperate with Bettman and the NHL to continue the payments.)

Can we get a #BettmanCares?

Another personal tale comes from the Hockey Maven himself—Stan Fischler—who should probably be voted “Bettman’s #1 Fan” before he retires. Stan showed me, without commentary, a hand-written note from the NHL commissioner in which he thanked Stan for sending along a book and for being a good friend to him over the years. Seriously: Awwww.

All of that, of course, goes on behind the scenes. My point is, those who assume that Bettman spends his free time stealing lunch money from helpless Canadian children couldn’t be more wrong.

But Bettman’s villainous persona in the public eye is baffling to me as well. The simplest answer is usually the correct one, so it’s not over the top to suggest that Bettman merely functions as a lightning rod for the vitriol of all NHL fans, players, and reporters. He is the face of the league in the legal sense, so it’s easy to blame him for any and all of its shortcomings. Jonathon Gatehouse, author of The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever, noted wryly that “being hated is part of Gary Bettman’s job description.” The Commish has accepted this aspect of his role with a remarkable amount of stoicism. “If I can deflect negative attention from the game and the owners,” he once told Leafs’ blogger Howard Berger, “I’m fine with it.

But what of his professional accomplishments? According to an old New York Times article Wikipedia I dug up, Bettman’s objective at the dawn of his tenure was “simple”:

Put a stop to labor unrest; sell the product in television’s mainstream marketplace; change the violent image of the game; curb salary inflation; force enlightened self-interest on reluctant, old-fashioned owners; expand contacts with European developmental leagues and markets; settle the divisive issue of possible Olympic involvement, and help launch several new expansion teams.

The persistent focus on the first, (largely failed) goal is understandable; I, too, am infuriated by the 113-day lockout that lasted 113 days too long. (And the NHL’s involvement in the upcoming Olympics still remains to be worked out, but I’m optimistic that the NHL and NHLPA will get their acts together—and soon.) But the game has changed in unbelievably important ways since that February morning in 1993, and if Bettman had a hand in all three lockouts, then it’s safe to say he had a hand in the unprecedented growth during that time as well.

We’re constantly throwing around phrases like “Most watched _____ ever” with regards to each subsequent Stanley Cup Final game; consider “the product in television’s mainstream marketplace” sold. The NHL’s television exposure has been one of the defining successes of the last two decades. The league has come a long way since the 5-year deals with FOX, ABC, and ESPN, and even those were jaw-dropping at the time. Then came the Versus deal in 2006, worth $207.5 million. Finally, in April of 2011, a 10 year/$2 billion deal was signed with NBC, giving the league it’s highest ever rights fee from a U.S. network. Not to mention programs like GameCenter, Center Ice, and XM radio talkshows, which lessen the need for such extensive television network coverage. In 2011-12, the league’s revenue totaled $3.2 billion. In this lockout-shortened campaign (48 games), revenue is expected to be upwards of $2.4 billion. That’s 72% of the revenue with 58% of the games played. Despite (…because of?) the labor unrest, the league is undeniably flourishing. (Need more info, stats gurus? Look no further than this Chris Botta article.)

As for “salary inflation”, the introduction of the salary cap and of cap circumvention prevention clauses have seen to that. And as for the violent image of the game, well, take one look at the evolvement of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Though the European Premiere games will not be back to start the 2013-14 season, that venture—along with the potential revival of the World Cup of Hockey—is certainly on the table for further discussion.

And expansion? Sure, there have been pitfalls. Sure, the Coyotes are struggling, despite the continued support of diehard Desert Dog fans. But the league has, literally speaking, expanded—and benefited. For every Atlanta Thrashers, there’s a San Jose Sharks; for every Florida Panthers, there’s a Winnipeg Jets. Thanks to the interest in hockey inspired by expansion teams, youth hockey has grown exponentially as well—check out this piece by USA Hockey’s Chris Peters about the impact of Sidney Crosby on Pittsburgh hockey in particular.

The institution of  traditions like Hockey Weekend Across America is another boon for the game, and the Winter Classic has been a rousing success every year since its inception in 2008. (Although, maybe the six Outdoor Classics that have been been scheduled for next season is just a bit excessive, we say, as we shell out the cash and instacollage pics of our road trips to each and every outdoor game.)

I’m not pretending to be an expert on the business ventures of the NHL. But one can’t charge the league’s commissioner with the bad without also praising him for the good. Do you enjoy connecting with other fans while taking in the Stanley Cup Final on TV? Do you revel in the magic of the Winter Classic? Do you appreciate the countless opportunities available to youth hockey players?

Then why, pray tell, are you booing?

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