November 11, 2008
One of the most amazing things about Gary Bettman is his sense of nuance. On one hand, every public comment he makes about NHL policy or practice is couched in circular logic and qualifications; even the most general question gets ducked because he doesn't believe the NHL should take a firm stance on an issue, turned around with a barrage of diversionary appeals for more research or shrugged off with a "we don't know yet." He's a careful politician in that regard.
But good politicians are ones that can appeal, on a human level, to their constituency. And there hasn't been a Gary Bettman interview we can recall in which it felt like he was working for the fans' best interests. Or the players' best interests. Or, at times, his sport's best interests. As a public surrogate, he comes off as combative where he should be a salesman; repulsive where he should be charming. He's about as amiable as a visit from the IRS during a root canal.
Bettman appeared on TSN's Off the Record this week, and host Michael Landsberg gave an admirable performance as his inquisitor. As usual, there are points of agreement with Bettman: The slippery slope a ban on hits to the head could create; his thoughts on the salary cap floor; his clear affection for agitators like Claude Lemieux and, in fact, Sean Avery; and his admiration for The Dave Matthews Band, for example.
But in two parts here, Bettman frustrates the hell out of you in discussions about expansion, the Toronto Maple Leafs and a myriad of other topics -- including why people hate him.
"It's for me to interpret the Constitution." Maybe it's the last eight years of Dick Cheney that's to blame, but did anyone else get a chill when Bettman said that?
Here's part two, with thoughts on Avery, the salary cap and reopening the CBA:
We've come around on Bettman, in the sense that we no longer blame him for all the NHL's ills. Just the ones he's responsible for: Marketing, labor negotiations, expansion and relocation, the TV deals and the general direction of the sport.
But more than anything: This guy is, and always has been, a lousy ambassador for the NHL. He's like Bud Selig without the disarming appeal of being an elderly loon. (Oh, and also the success.)
He's a wonk, and has done some good work in backroom meetings and behind the scenes. But as a public advocate for the League's policies, here's hoping the next commissioner can kill with kindness rather than conduct interviews in a constant state of "talk to the hand, girlfriend."