October 29, 2011
On Friday night, after the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2011 World Series in Game 7, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig presented the championship trophy and MVP award.
Say what you will about NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, but when he does the same at the Stanley Cup Final, he doesn't need a flippin' script. Of course, in most cases, Selig has something Bettman doesn't have: Relative respect from those in attendance.
He's usually met with rapt apathy in MLB stadia — outside of getting jeered in Philadelphia ... but hey who hasn't? Bettman, in contrast, is booed lustfully wherever the Stanley Cup is awarded.
Watching Selig last night and having witnessed Bettman getting the gears annually made us wonder how the NHL commissioner feels about it. Typically, he answers queries about this tradition with sarcastic "what booing?" dismissals. But Howard Berger got him talking about it recently.
The Toronto-based report ascended to Bettman's Manhattan office for what amounts to a cheerleading piece about the commissioner and a slap on the hand for "the vast majority of those who cover the game north of the border" and their treatment of Bettman through the years. It's about as balanced as a scale weighing feathers against the Chicago Bears offensive line, but that's what he set out to write.
Berger gets into Bettman being a "lightning rod" for negativity, and a villain for many, leading to the question: Does he find getting booed during the presentation of the Cup to be disrespectful?
"When I'm presenting the Cup, it's not about me - it's about the team receiving it," Bettman said. "When I'm presenting the Conn Smythe, it's not about me, it's about the player. And, that's who I feel badly for. That player and the winning team have worked so hard for their accomplishment that it may detract from what should be a terrific moment.
"That said, I think most people, at this point, have begun to look at [the booing] as a bit of a joke. When Tim Thomas(notes) came up in Vancouver [to receive the Conn Smythe] and Zdeno Chara(notes) came over [for the Stanley Cup], we were all joking about the noise. For me, it's no big deal. I've done it enough times now and I know that TV can pick up what I'm saying, so I just talk. People in the arena, if they're booing and they don't want to hear it, that's fine.
"I don't remember being booed in Carolina or Anaheim [the last two occasions in which the home team won the championship]," Bettman said. "In fact, Philadelphia [when Chicago won the Cup there in 2010] wasn't that bad. The Flyers' fans were pretty respectful. I walked out - they booed - then it got quiet when I started to present the Cup."
As far as his role as a villain, Bettman said:
"Look, in essence, I'm the equivalent of a politician. Public figures get criticized. And, just so you understand that I'm not delusional about this: Do I think people boo me just because that's the same thing they do to a governor, or a premier, or the President? No. There are some people that genuinely don't like me and the job that I do. I'm fine with that. I don't expect that everyone will approve of me. As long as the people that employ me are satisfied - and the game is growing at the rate it should be - that's good enough... and it always will be."
Like a lot of fans, my opinion on Bettman has changed over the years.
I blame him for less because he's simply not responsible for all of the NHL's missteps when it comes to things like rule changes. That's something I learned over time, and in conversations with NHL governors and Bettman himself. I still believe he helped mis-market the NHL during the 1990s, squandering momentum from the early part of the decade and failing to connect with a generation of young sports fans that the NFL and NBA did so effectively. But it's not like he invented the glow puck.
Losing a season to a labor dispute is still reprehensible, no matter how resetting the financial system and rebooting the rulebook helped grow the game. Bettman deserves credit for turning a public access TV deal with NBC into a $2 billion contract. But the resurgence of teams in Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago; the emergence of Crosby, Ovechkin and a generation of young stars; and some incredible luck with playoff matchups has as much to do with the NHL's current success than anything for which Bettman was the catalyst. (Insert "outside of fixing the lottery for Pittsburgh" conspiracy pap here.)
Would I boo Bettman during the presentation of the Cup?
I already have.
In 1995, I was in the upper deck for Game 4 of the Final, as the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup. He walked out to present it, and received jeers. At the time, Bettman was an enemy to the fan base because he was doing nothing publicly to keep the Devils from relocating to Nashville, which was the underlying threat throughout their playoff run. That pissed me off. So like so many others, I booed him.
Like Bettman said, "There are some people that genuinely don't like me and the job that I do." With due respect to those like Berger who believes "no environment in hockey is as bizarre, or disrespectful, than the moments, each spring, when Bettman is on the ice presenting the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup," fans have their reasons, and have the right to express that displeasure.
If the NHL doesn't want this moment spoiled by legitimate disagreement with the actions of the NHL's figurehead, it's real easy: Have last season's winning team captain or Brendan Shanahan(notes) or some Hall of Famer or anyone who isn't Gary Bettman hand out the Cup. Leave the lightning rod in the owner's box.
Otherwise, there are always going to be mixed or harsh receptions for Bettman. Even if we all know it could be worse — look at baseball.