The NHL playoffs have commenced. It has been months since the respective combatants in the collective bargaining battle decided that the deal on the table was one that each could live with. Ironically, in a game that thrives on its persona of toughness the only pugilistic entertainment value the NHL was able to afford its fans for the 119 days of "talks" was the rather depressing Bettman v. Fehr tilt. However, instead of dropping the gloves, the two exchanged blows via the media with each side vying for the public's adoration. Modern day gladiators. Somewhere in Springfield, Mass. Eddie Shore is barrel-rolling in his grave.
Now that the dust has settled, and I, along with the millions of hockey fans around the world have taken a deep breath, stopped cringing (or cursing) every time the word Bettman, Fehr, or lockout was mentioned, and gotten back to enjoying our game, we can try to evaluate as objectively as possible what is wrong with the NHL. As the season winds down such reflection is important as hockey fans should not allow the on ice excitement to cloud their memory.
The truth is that since Gary Bettman took office in 1993, no other major sports league has been as self-destructive as the NHL. Bettman has been vilified, and rightfully so, but he cannot be placed with all of the blame. Instead, I believe that the onus must be placed on those who have allowed Mr. Bettman to continue his reign as NHL commissioner. In order for the NHL to gain ground on its more popular counterparts it must conduct and internal evaluation, really look itself in the mirror, and if that face it sees staring back at it (Gary Bettman) does not make it happy then it's time for a changing of the guard.
Like any employee, or agent of an employer or principal, the commissioner of the NHL has a description of what is expected from his services. It follows that when the commissioner is not fulfilling his duty to perform those services adequately he should no longer be tasked with those responsibilities. In simpler terms if you don't do your job you should no longer have that job. The blue collar worker should be cut some slack but when your job entails oversight on a billion dollar business and you are paid accordingly (nearly $8 million in 2011) your standard of care and your employer's standard of scrutiny should be dramatically heightened.
According to the National Hockey League Constitution the NHL Commissioner "shall be charged with protecting the integrity of the game of professional hockey and preserving public confidence in the league."
When Gary Bettman was hired in 1993 as the NHL's first (and only) commissioner he was tasked with a wide range of initiatives ranging from helping the league launch several new expansion teams to putting a stop to labor unrest. No small task indeed. Yet at its core the protection of the integrity of the game is the underlying principle that Bettman's job as commissioner rests on. This is where the NHL has failed. It placed the integrity of the game in the hands of a man who did not, still does not, and unfortunately cannot, operate with a perspective that allows him to shape his vision of the game's future with the sole underlying principal of what his job entails driving the process. As a result, he has failed in his duties.
As a youth hockey coach all of my decisions stem from the underlying values I am trying to instill in my players. Integrity is at the top of the list. Hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and teamwork, along with other core values, are the foundation of our season and the impetus behind our team's growth and success. The goal is not to win, but rather striving to better every day by smiling in the face of adversity and staying true to the standards we have set for our team. The result is more often than not positive. These values are universal and they transcend the playing surface. In theory, this sounds great, but in application if I don't have players whose perception of these goals is not aligned with the sport, the results will vary. What a basketball player considers to be team work or sacrifice is going to be different from a hockey player.
The board of governors asked Gary Bettman to do something he did not have the tools to do. His perspective is that of an outsider, someone who doesn't quite get what his job description is. He is a New York lawyer who had his modus operandi shaped at a big law firm. I think it is safe to say that his superiors that were tasked with his development were not exactly representative of the passionate hockey fan. Bettman was doomed from the beginning. He has never been able to approach crucial decisions from the appropriate perspective. He was never able to see that integrity is what makes this game so special. The result has been shortsighted work stoppages, ridiculous gimmicks (blue puck anyone?), public contempt, and lack of fan appreciation. The byproduct is that the league's bottom line suffers, which is ironically what Bettman is trying to avoid. Yes revenues are up but growth compared to the other majors is laughable.
What this game now needs is an individual who understands the game itself, not someone who is fixated on CBA bargaining. Television has been locked in until the 20-21 season (a fraction of the other major TV deals). The CBA is set for 10 years. The NHL needs a new face. Someone that the fans won't boo at every cup presentation. Someone who focuses on the hockey's values and principles and conducts his business in such a manner. The NHL needs to gain back its integrity; it needs to rid itself of its current commissioner.