When it comes to where the blame for this lockout ultimately lies, and where battle lines are drawn, I'm not so much pro-player as I am anti-league, and that's been reflected often throughout this lockout.
Because Gary Bettman apparently proposed a two-week moratorium on negotiations because of whatever dumb reasons he could come up with — and apparently based entirely on hearsay — everyone even remotely sympathetic to the players in this labor strife once again took the opportunity to climb their nearest mountaintop and proclaim the man deeply and truly inept, irresponsible, and worst of all, Bad For The Game.
But the truth of Bettman's role in this lockout, and in the League as a whole, is far more complicated than his being the guy who brought fans three lockouts in 18 years.
The simple fact is that when he's actually doing the day-to-day business of running the League, and not locking out the players at the slightest provocation, Bettman might be the best commissioner in sports. It's absolutely and 100 percent true. How much evidence do you need?
(Coming Up: Claude Giroux injured; Brian Burke on Luongo trade; Tomas Kaberle thinks the lockout will end soon; Alex Radulov. Malcolm Subban and Charlie Coyle are killing it; Toews and Janssen get charitable; Kirk Muller, golfer; and the Flyers and Penguins work together to save the lockout; great spin-o-rama pass.)
Let's start with the simplest information we have available. The League's hockey-related revenues expanded 50 percent to $3.3 billion in the seven years since Bettman notoriously dashed an entire season in an effort to break the players' union. Despite all the claims that no one would come back, and despite the fact that ticket prices didn't actually go down as promised, far more people get out to NHL games and show they care about the product by spending money on it than they did before.
With that having been said, it's important to note that hockey is still a niche sport, with interest relegated to small pockets of the U.S., largely where it's cold in the winter, but also where teams are actually good. And even in the latter case (i.e. Phoenix) not all the time.
In terms of television ratings, relatively no one watches hockey, and yet Bettman just worked NBC Sports Network to the tune of $2 billion over the next 10 years, having already essentially forced it to go from The Hunting and Fishing Channel to The Hockey and Also Some Other Stuff Channel.
In the time since the last lockout, Bettman also helped to introduce the hockey world to things that it very legitimately loves, and I'm not including shootouts.
[Sam McCaig: Hockey history compromised by three work stoppages]
The Winter Classic, for one, is the most-watched hockey game of the year, a huge event that this league could never have pulled off prior to the last lockout. It makes the league an absolutely insane amount of money, and Bettman deserves to roll around in it like Mike Commodore if he really wants to. I understand that John Collins was the guy who had the vision on this, but Bettman at least listened to him, and recognized that it was a really unbelievably great idea.
Critics will say that a lot of the increased revenues would have come regardless of Bettman starting the Winter Classic because the Canadian dollar increasing in value by about 15 percent from the 85 cents or so at which it stood on opening day of the 2005 season, and the added value certainly buys a lot of extra paint with which to write "Thank You Fans!" at both blue lines.
People also point to his continued persistence in keeping the Coyotes dying of thirst in the desert, and his similar aggressive (some would say overaggressive) expansion into the dreaded non-traditional markets as professional flaws, and certainly that might be true. But credit where it's due on one front: The decision to let Atlanta move to Winnipeg when it needed to do so was one he likely could have forestalled, but didn't. He got out of the way despite making seemingly every other southern team a rock on which to die, and that certainly worked to the league's benefit last season as well.
He's very obviously not a bad commissioner or a bad steward for the sport, or an idiot, as Ian White would suggest. He's a good commissioner, a good promoter and even grower of the game, and a very smart man. What he isn't is in any way likable and seems to lack basic interpersonal skills that could serve to make him a tolerable person to which one could listen, and that, at the end of all this, is the reason he's all but being pelted with garbage on the streets these days.
He also had the benefit, in the past, of dealing with pretty much clueless union heads, and found it easy to bully them. He was criticized, roundly and rightly, for using a lockout as a negotiation tactic against Don Fehr and the union, rather than a last resort, but the reason he did it is because, as with the previous two times, he thought he could get away with it. He didn't count on Fehr not being as big of a pushover as Ted Saskin, which seems a grave miscalculation on his part.
Bettman's biggest crime therefore isn't ruining this sport we all love so much (except him and Fehr, who we're repeatedly told are basketball and baseball guys to the very marrow in their bones, as if that has anything to do with anything), but rather entering into negotiations of this new CBA with no plan in mind.
How many times has he said, "This is the best offer you're going to get," only to have him sweeten it a few weeks later with more provisions that can be viewed as concessions to the players only through the prism of the absurd opening offers the league made in the first place? Several.
I've said before that there's this perception that everyone wants to play except Gary Bettman, and even reports about exactly which owners are driving the lockout (save for Jeremy Jacobs) are brushed aside — by fans of those teams as probably not being accurate because why would Their Owner want to deprive them of hockey — as some sort of fiction.
It's always important to remember that Bettman serves at the pleasure of the owners, and they ultimately steer the ship. If Jacobs and his cadre of saber-rattlers tells Bettman to do something, and the commissioner doesn't because it's not in the best interest of the game, then Bettman's the one calling other leagues looking for a job.
Those guys let him enter into these bitter negotiations with no understanding whatsoever of what they were up against, and no cogent plan for dealing with things when Fehr didn't shakily scribble his name to the first offer Bettman slid across the table. He should never have been a part of this negotiation given the lack of preparedness clearly on display, and given the general acrimony already surrounding him, though again that's part of his job, to helpfully deflect hatred from the owners and onto himself.
Gary Bettman's not bad for the NHL. Poorly negotiated collective bargaining agreements are. We just got done with one, and they let the guy who wrote it try to fix his own mess, and that very rarely works out for anyone involved.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: Andrew Cogliano just recently realized that bad posture isn't a good thing when you're a top-class professional athlete. This lockout has been a real help to everyone.
Boston Bruins: Malcolm Subban is killing it in the OHL, and singlehandedly dragging his team along with him. Though his Belleville Bulls are currently in first place, and have allowed a league-best 54 goals in 22 games, that's despite their having scored just 52, the lowest mark in the O by 10 whole goals.
Buffalo Sabres: Something really interesting the Sabres are doing during the lockout: If you're a team employee, you can take "classes" with the organization to learn what other departments do. For instance, accountants could learn about what Hockey Ops does, and so forth. Those accountants, though, would probably shake their heads in disappointment over, say, the Ville Leino deal.
Calgary Flames: Lanny McDonald has a strong commitment to autographs, and also mustaches. Man, look at the soup strainer on that guy. What a legend.
Carolina Hurricanes: Since the lockout began, Kirk Muller has played more golf than he did in the previous four or five years combined. Good practice for whenever the NHL gets around to having the playoffs.
Chicago Blackhawks: One very underrated thing about the lockout is that it's allowing players to raise a ton of money for very, very worthy causes, and Jonathan Toews is just the latest to have done so. He recently hosted one in Winnipeg, and raised more than $80,000 for The Dream Factory and The Children's Hospital Foundation of Manitoba.
Colorado Avalanche: Sports Illustrated recently called Avs owner Stan Kroenke the most powerful man in sports. Owning an NHL, NFL, NBA, MLS, NLL and EPL team tends to give you that kind of clout, but the question I have is, "Do you think you're too good for Major League Baseball, Kroenke?"
Columbus Blue Jackets: Bad news for Columbus and Ryan Murray. He busted up his shoulder pretty good playing for Everett in the WHL and is out indefinitely. Somewhere, Scott Howson is just weeping quietly.
Dallas Stars: Tom Gaglardi has now owned the Stars for a full year, and the team may soon cut lower-level employees' salaries for a lockout they're believed to be driving. Good stuff, man. Really cool first year.
Detroit Red Wings presented by Amway: Prospect Marek Tvrdon was leading the Vancouver Giants in scoring, but is now done for the season with a vein blockage in his left shoulder, which sounds like no fun at all.
Edmonton Oilers: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' game is really starting to round out. He scored two goals and added an assist the other night, running his total to 7-10-17 in 14 games. But four of those goals and two of those assists have come in the last three games, and he's rocketing up the AHL leaderboard.
Florida Panthers: Looks like, according to the experts at Hockey's Future, the Panthers still have the best prospect pool in the league. Deep at every position. Damn.
Los Angeles Kings: How is Luc Robitaille only just now getting into the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame?
Minnesota Wild: Charlie Coyle has been very impressive in his first pro season, standing tied for second in AHL rookie goals with seven in 15 games.
the lockout will probably end soon, that's good enough for me.
Nashville Predators: Alex Radulov is back to killing it in the KHL, leading the league with 36 points in 34 games and playing a whopping 23:15 a night. David Poile has to be so mad right now.
New Jersey Devils: Cam Janssen recently hosted a charity game in his native St. Louis to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. "Fans haven't seen a fast-paced, skilled hockey game in a long time with professionals," Janssen said. "They're craving to see an NHL-caliber game. I'm trying to make that as realistic as possible." Hope he didn't run Kevin Shattenkirk from behind just for authenticity's sake.
New York Islanders: Unlike Tomas Kaberle, Lubomir Visnovsky and his KHL teammate Andrej Sekera aren't feeling too optimistic about the lockout getting solved. One assumes, though, that where Visnovsky is concerned, that's more wishful thinking than anything else.
New York Rangers: Seems like that Rangers hockey clinic went real well out on Staten Island. It raised $14,000 for Sandy relief efforts, thanks to 110 skaters and 550 fans who turned out.
Ottawa Senators: So remember that whole mystery about Jared Cowen's leg injury getting downgraded last week to "probably pretty bad?" Yeah, now he's out for the season with a torn labrum in his left hip.
Philadelphia Flyers: Claude Giroux suffered a minor neck injury in the German league, but seriously it's like really minor. Super minor, you guys. Don't worry. Minor.
Phoenix Coyotes: Today is Day No. 101 since Jude LaCava of Fox 10 in Arizona said Greg Jamison would have the deal for the Coyotes sewn up within the next five days. But at leas the Glendale City Council will actually hear details of the proposed arena management plan this week. "The new deal hinges on Jamison buying the Coyotes from the National Hockey League." Hahaha.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Big ups to Evgeni Malkin, broke a three-game pointless streak with two goals and an assist in a 5-3 win over Barys Astana. Now he's only on 31 points in 21 games. What a bum.
San Jose Sharks: Dan Boyle says his biggest concern in the lockout is the fans. He knows he's 36 and owed almost $6.67 million this season right?
St. Louis Blues: Ken Hitchcock must be really hard-up for something to do if he's guest-coaching Missouri State practices.
Tampa Bay Lightning: BJ Crombeen to the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL seems just about right, doesn't it?
Toronto Maple Leafs: Matt Frattin finally returned from a pretty serious injury and went gangbusters in his season debut. In his first game since May, he had a pair of goals, but the Marlies' defense played more like the Leafs' defense, and the team lost 6-3.
Vancouver Canucks: Seriously, there's no Luongo-to-Toronto deal in place for the second hockey comes back. Honestly, gang. "I emphatically deny that's not true," Brian Burke said. Double negative. We caught him. It's happening.
Washington Capitals: More stuff of fans getting together to watch video game versions of their favorite teams. I think the hockey world is having a collective nervous breakdown.
Winnipeg Jets: Jacob Trouba is working on his public speaking in classes at Michigan, assumedly because Basket Weaving 101 was all filled up.
Play of the Weekend
Via United States of Hockey, here is a goodish spin-o-rama backhand pass from Sabres prospect Jake McCabe to set up an easy goal, but man this whole play is just great stuff from Wisconsin. I want to take this goal to prom.
Gold Star Award
Minus of the WeekendTalks today. The NHL's all like "This is their show let's hope they have something worth listening to." Ugh just stop it.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User "Kesler Krony" is feelin' fine.
To New Jersey:
Luongo or Schneider (I'm assuming NJ wants Schneider)
Zajac (going to UFA)
He always leaves the TV on the Game Show network. I'm not sure why it bothers me, but it does.
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- Gary Bettman
- Gary Bettman