As a rule, I like to defend Gary Bettman. I’m a contrarian, and he’s a target of near-universal hatred. He has a comical appearance in a world that focuses too much on superficiality. His roots are in basketball, yet he runs a league that is notoriously insular. Aside from that, Bettman makes more sense viewed as a man who acts in the interests of the Board of Governors: everything he says, and everything he does are seemingly calculated to either advance their interests or improve his standing with them. As one example, expansion fits perfectly in that mindset; the team owners get a shiny pile of money, and at the same time Bettman gets to hire his new bosses. It’s a cozy arrangement.
Despite my inclination to defend the commissioner, I can’t deny that he’s optimistic to the point of dishonesty. Listening to Bettman speak, one would think that the NHL was free of controversy, piling up revenue, and that its franchises were all bastions of stability and good management. There’s never a cloud in Bettman’s portrait of the league.
In stark contrast to Bettman is David Andrews, the long time commissioner of the American Hockey League. Andrews has an interesting hockey background; he was a star goaltender in CIS and played for a few years in Europe (in the Netherlands, of all places) before going into coaching. Andrews won a Memorial Cup with the WHL’s Victoria Cougars; among the players he coached were hall-of-fame goaltender Grant Fuhr and the brothers Courtnall. Andrews moved on to take a job running the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL affiliate from 1987 to 1994; in 1990 he was named as the league’s outstanding executive and in 1993 he put together the team that won the Calder Cup. That was the job he left to become the commissioner of the AHL.
The other contrast between Bettman and Andrews worth noting is his willingness to acknowledge problems as problems, something that was evident during his annual state of the league address, recorded for us by Keith Wozniak of Let’s Go Amerks! (g/t Derek Zona).
There’s a long list of issues that Andrews acknowledges. The league wants to reduce its schedule but hasn’t been able to reach an agreement yet. The NHL wants AHL referees to get more coaching and supervision. Ticket revenue is down, although he expects it to rebound somewhat. About 1/3rd of teams are having down years, some of it because of the economy and some of it because of team performance. The league doesn’t plan to move west, for now the Flames’ affiliate in Abbotsford is simply a Calgary-driven move rather than a league plan. Hits to the head and from behind are an issue, and the league is going to suspend offenders. Obstruction is creeping back in and both the NHL and AHL will need to look at seriously addressing that if it continues. An NHL-style replay system is to expensive to setup, so they’ll continue without one.
Just once I’d like to see Gary Bettman do something like what Andrews did – frankly acknowledge the problems facing the league, and explain what steps the league has taken and what things are out of their hands. It probably won’t ever happen, though.