The NHL lockout that will go into effect Thursday is a result of myriad issues, mistakes and market trends. Some of which, we acknowledge, can't be pinned on commissioner Gary Bettman.
That, however, doesn't change the league's core problem: Nearly 12 years into his tenure, Bettman's abject failure has the NHL facing a work stoppage that threatens not just its season but also its long-term future.
No matter how much nonsense both sides spin during this maddening lockout, the simple thing to remember is that someone has to be held accountable for this mess.
The NHL has spent the more than a decade following Bettman's plan to supposedly modernize and market itself. But it now plays to a dwindling fan base with two-thirds of its franchises bleeding money and a television contract that is an industry joke. It will lock out its players because of a problematic, one-sided collective bargaining agreement Bettman negotiated in 1994.
How's that for leadership?
Sure, it is difficult to side with the players (average salary: $1.79 million) in sports labor disputes. But if the owners are going to spend like drunken sailors, you can't honestly expect the players to turn the money down.
It is supposed to be the commissioner who either keeps the owners in line or figures out a way to generate so much new revenue it hardly matters.
Bettman has done neither.
Bettman's problem is with his promise. He was brought in as some wunderkind from the NBA, hired to push the NHL into the modern age of sports.
Almost from the start he showed he was the wrong guy for this job.
I have long contended that Bettman's most telling – if relatively harmless – move was his immediate renaming of the divisions and conferences. Always one to portray himself as the smartest guy at the rink, Bettman figured that if he had no history with hockey (he was a casual fan at best), then hockey had no history. So out went the classic (Norris Division, Campbell Conference, etc.) and in came the generic (Southeast Division, Western Conference).
Anyone who already was a hockey fan and liked the unique names would just have to deal. Old fans no longer mattered. Bettman cared only about new fans and since they wouldn't know who Clarence Campbell was, why name a conference after him?
But were "new fans" so stupid they couldn't figure out Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver were in the West?
From there the blunders have ranged from the foolish – allowing Fox to use a glowing puck for telecasts, which made the league an XFL-level laughingstock – to the damaging. Expansion and relocation have pulled the league away from its hockey-mad northern roots to the disinterested Sun Belt.
Bettman's believed hockey is so exciting that once you see it live you are hooked. Through hyper-expansion he'd make it a truly national sport.
The plan has been a failure. While core groups of fans have developed, no franchise in the South has thrived unless the team is deep in Stanley Cup contention. Instead, the league's talent has been diluted (imagine the quality of play if the NHL were still just 21 teams?), ancient rivalries withered and the preponderance of new teams confused causal fans who couldn't (or no longer tried to) tell Atlanta from Nashville.
Television ratings in the United States are anemic and in Canada flat, at best. Next year's U.S. contract brings in no meaningful rights fees, just the opportunity for the NHL and NBC to share advertising revenue.
It is basically the same deal NBC has with arena football.
Hockey is still as great of a sport as we've got. It is thrilling and chilling and gripping. But it's not for everyone. It never has been.
Rather than maximize what it can be, it followed the foolish plan of a fumbling leader. In trying to get bigger, hockey alienated some of its base, weakened its quality of play and, in turn, managed to get smaller. It turns out Bettman's promises wrote checks his reality can't cover.
So we are at this impasse. Unless the owners get a hard cap based on revenue percentage (which the union is loathe to agree to), the NHL as is faces an uncertain future. In the interim, the only sport we get is watching both sides blame the other.
But remember this when you listen to Gary Bettman: If he hadn't failed at his job the past dozen years, hockey wouldn't be in such dire straights right now.
- Gary Bettman