Unhappy anniversary

Everyone has a favorite conspiracy theory about the NBA. Some like the idea that David Stern fixed the 1984 draft lottery. Others favor his supposed secret suspension of a star player for gambling problems.

Mine dates back to the early 1990s, when the NHL was white hot with fans and never better on the ice. Wayne Gretzky was in Los Angeles. Mark Messier was with the New York Rangers, who were on the verge of ending their Stanley Cup drought. Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque, Patrick Roy and many others were hitting their prime.

Anyone who doesn't think hockey can work in America is forgetting this era. All of a sudden, hockey was challenging, if not beating, the NBA in a number of major U.S. markets – including New York. It's almost impossible to imagine now, but it happened.

As the conspiracy theory goes, Stern sensed the potential trouble in 1993 while the NHL was in search of a new commissioner. So he looked around his own office for someone so incompetent that if they got the job, the NHL would be marginalized by their mismanagement and never again be a threat to the NBA.

Naturally, Stern recommended one of his assistants, Gary Bettman, for the job.

True story or not, it worked.

Bettman is set to begin his 15th year as commissioner Thursday, and like most hockey fans I feel the need to mark the occasion by popping a bottle of champagne, chugging the entire thing in an effort to drown my misery and then smashing the empty bottle over my temple to black out the memories.

There has never been a commissioner of a major North American sports league this inept, yet the league's board of governors keeps employing him, keeps giving him another chance to sink this once-proud, once-vibrant league to new depths.

Bettman is on a 14-year run of bad ideas. His latest was a classic, moving the league's all-star game, which featured attention-grabbing young megastars, to midweek on the Versus Network – as opposed to NBC on a weekend. He claimed it would allow Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin to own the sports landscape, unlike some crowded weekend.

The result was a catastrophic 0.7 rating. That's a meager 474,298 households in the States that bothered to watch, down 76 percent from the last all-star game.

It is par for a season which has seen TV numbers plummet in both the U.S. and Canada (down 20 percent by some reports), attendance drop and media coverage dwindle.

Hockey fans would laugh if we weren't crying. We'd figure it would be the last straw that would lead to his dismissal, but at this stage, we know he's never going away. For those of us who grew up loving and living this sport and this league, all of us who cared about the NHL long before Bettman's slow, steady suicidal stewardship of it, it's just the latest in a recurring nightmare.

The Bettman era has been an unmitigated disaster for the league in virtually every possible way, one outrageously terrible initiative after another.

I could write a book about Bettman's insulting and imbecilic moves through the years (Chapter 9: "The Glowing Puck") but the main problem has always been the same. He has shown no respect for the game, for its history, for its fans, for its unique qualities.

Bettman might consider himself an astute sports marketer, but in practice he is arguably the worst of all time. He has never figured out how to change his marketing plans to fit the product of hockey. Instead, he changed the product to fit his marketing plans.

The league is now overexpanded and overpriced, misplaced and misdirected. It is less exciting, less interesting, less traditional and more difficult to follow for the non-obsessive fan.

Yes, hockey fans remain. I'm one of them. But even we can't believe what has happened here. It is bad enough a desperate, ill-advised grab of supposed "new, emerging markets" have come at the expense of the old fan base. It's dispiriting that the league chased the fickle corporate dollar and priced out families. But what's worse is it just keeps going and going, Bettman on the job for life.

Under Bettman's watch, the NHL's improvements are few. Certainly new technologies such as the "Center Ice" package and the Internet have been great. And there are far more highly skilled players than in 1993, thanks to the influx of talent from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Of course, Bettman had nothing to do with these things occurring.

The elimination of the red line and the crackdown on obstruction are positives. Some will argue that shootouts to decide regular-season games and the severe curbing of fighting are positives, but that's a matter of personal preference.

While some hail the salary cap that allows across-the-board competitiveness, I think it suppresses the kind of elite play that makes the game great. Hockey is the ultimate team pursuit – the need for timing and teamwork is paramount. The individual star is utterly worthless without strong teammates.

The great player needs other great players to be great. In the mid-1980s, Gretzky needed Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri and others to maximize his abilities and thrill fans. A salary cap prevents talent from flocking together like that, so we get economic viability of the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for breathtaking teams such as the Edmonton Oilers of 1980s or the Detroit Red Wings of the late 1990s.

The negatives are too numerous to list, but consider the league's current uneven schedule which serves no purpose other than cutting travel costs for a few cheapskate owners. Teams play eight games per season against division foes, or 32 a year against just four teams.

Bettman claimed it would spawn "new" rivalries. Of course, old rivalries such as Detroit-Toronto – two hockey-mad towns separated by a single highway that actually has an exit for Wayne Gretzky Blvd. – no longer play a home-and-home series each season. It's like killing Red Sox-Yankees so Blue Jays-Diamondbacks might catch on.

And, since fighting has been curbed, the "new" rivalries haven't really taken because a hockey rivalry without fighting is like non-alcoholic beer.

Plus, not everyone gets to see young superstars such as Pittsburgh's Crosby or Washington's Ovechkin.

Last week, 22 franchises tried to bring the old schedule back, but eight blocked the move in a vote while Bettman, predictably, did little lobbying on behalf of the majority opinion.

This is Bettman's NHL. Fourteen years, four bankruptcies, three franchise moves, two lockouts, one lost season and no effective leadership. The business is so sick that the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite a loyal fan base and the most promising talent since Gretzky, are 50-50 to move to that noted hockey hotbed of Kansas City.

Bettman has his apologists who point out that he beat former NHLPA head Bob Goodenow during the last lockout and got a salary cap installed.

Which is true, except it cost the NHL an entire season and an incalculable number of fans. And the proposed cap for next season is already creeping close to the average pre-lockout team salary. Wasn't the new deal only needed because the old deal was so bad? And who negotiated that one for the NHL in 1994? Oh yes, Gary Bettman, who locked the players out and killed all momentum from the Rangers' Stanley Cup championship to get that ill-fated deal done.

Lord knows what is next. Lord knows how he can make it worse. Lord knows what prior screwups he'll try to solve now with fresh screwups.

You'd think a 0.7 was rock bottom, but then again, this is someone who surveyed the burning wreckage of the NHL and decided that what would really turn things around this time were sleek new uniforms from Reebok, which were trotted out last week.

"This is an evolution of our uniform," Bettman proudly crowed.

Of course, already fans who are carrying even a few extra pounds report that they look ridiculous in the new form fitting jerseys, which has led to predictions of plummeting apparel sales and jokes about how Bettman hatched the idea after watching George Costanza comically change the New York Yankees' uniforms to cotton.

"This is a Seinfeld episode, isn't it?" wrote one fan on the San Jose Mercury News' hockey blog.

Yes, David Stern's bizarro world, now entering its 15th year and counting.