I was scrolling through my Twitter feed late Sunday night when I found a succession of tweets from Daniel Tolensky (business analyst at Pulver Sports) that mused on the status of the CBA negotiations.

The question being asked was pretty straightforward: given the quotes from Gary Bettman during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, how did we end up here?

Whether the phrase is “world’s apart,” or “meaningful gulf,” it’s clear that the two sides aren’t down to figuring out who gets the extra nickels. We’re left with the majority of experts thinking we’re almost certainly going to see a lockout of some length.

From Tolensky, these are some of Gary Bettman’s words from June 1st, 2011 (as usual, ready from the bottom up):

So, what changed in a little over a year for Bettman that suddenly the owners want to roll back the players share of hockey-related revenues so drastically? Why do they suddenly need to pay the players so much less? How did one year alter the landscape so dramatically?

Well, the simple answer is that it didn’t. The simple answer is that Gary Bettman is a weaselly businessman who is very good at his job, and knows exactly when to say what. His job isn’t to make people like him, it’s to succeed at his job as commissioner of the NHL.

In an April edition of Maclean’s magazine there’s an except from the memoir of Richard Stursberg, who was the head of CBC English television in 2006 when the network had to re-negotiate a deal to keep Hockey Night in Canada on their channel, and not on CTV or TSN.

The point of emphasis in his excerpt was simple: Gary Bettman is always negotiating. There is no downtime, no “okay, let’s relax and put the business away,” and minimal sincerity. He’s of a single-minded focus.

When he speaks in press conferences, he is negotiating with the media, negotiating with the fans, and negotiating with the players. He controls the message and shapes public image as best he can for the good of himself, and for the good of the League. Given its growth since the last lockout, it’d be tough to argue that his mentality hasn’t given way to positive results.

Here’s an anecdote from Stursberg for a little context – once the CBC and the NHL had agreed to financial terms, Bettman wanted a couple more concessions. The story, starting after Bettman had made the additional requests:

There it was. We should cough up the playoff concessions and two Leafs games, let him close with TSN and be happy. With Bettman one is afraid to have a drink. It’s wiser to stick to water. He is always negotiating. Often when he is just speculating or gossiping or asking after the weather report, he is really negotiating. It never stops.

After dinner we walked into the cold Harlem night. There were no taxis anywhere. Bettman noticed us looking around.

“No car?” he asked.

“No. How do we get a cab?”

“Oh, cabs never come up here. They’re afraid,” he replied.

“Can you give us a lift?”

“Sure. How about we make it three extra Maple Leaf games?”

The guy sounds exhausting to be around.

But, while that behaviour doesn’t endear him to a lot of people, it gets the job done.

And that’s why in 2011 he can paint the pretty picture of the league, and express how this year’s CBA is going to be settled quietly and quickly. Because at that time, he has nothing to gain by saying “Jesus, no, we want soooooo much more stuff in the next deal. Things are fine, we just know we can get more.” The Stanley Cup Finals are a time for romanticizing the game, not talking business, and the man knows how to pick his spots. And so, romanticize he did.

It’s why those press conferences are a waste of time – it’s like buying a used car. You know the guy is lying to you. You know he can go below “as low as he can go.” But he has to play the game, as Bettman does, to make sure he doesn’t miss out on an extra dime. He lies, we know he’s lying, but in that instant, it’s the right thing to do for the business.

And with our “niche” league, with the NHL often being left off the list of major sports (at least on ESPN), that’s exactly who we need in charge. A part weasel, part Boa constrictor who wraps himself around those whom he negotiates with and squeezes every last penny out of their pockets to maximize the League’s revenues and keep the NHL stable, and hopefully profitable.

These days, Bettman is coiled up with Fehr and the NHLPA in his grasp, and he won’t let go. I feel for the players, because they’re up against a tough opponent, and are going to have to make more concessions – unreasonable or not – if they hope to collect a paycheck next season. And while that hurts them, it only helps the NHL’s owners, which seems to be all the commissioner cares about, right or wrong.

Snake, weasel, whatever animal-form you want to assign to the guy, there’s no doubt that he’s damn good at what he does.

Comments (20)

  1. Gary Bettman does not get enough credit for hockey being as big as it is today.

    I side with the players in this dispute, but I understand the owners’ position, why they’re taking it, and why they’ll likely win.

    • Yeah, I give a big “ditto” to that whole comment. I get why people think he’s a scuzz, but he deserves some credit for what he’s done.

      • It’s true. The NHL has never generated such huge revenues, and one would be a fool to deny his financial savvy as being part of that.

        The game is much better for having five more teams then can be supported (at the very least) and ticket prices far out of reach of the average fan.

  2. Every time someone criticizes Bettman being negative / manipulative / whatever, all I can say is “of course he is… THAT’S HIS JOB.”

    Does he put a positive spin on league business when it suits him? Sure. By doing so, the league looks better for sponsors and the corporate world in general.

    But, geez, if people think he’s bad they need a broader perspective. He hasn’t rigged a draft (Stern). He hasn’t employed replacement players (various NFL and MLB commishes) in an attempt to break the union*. He hasn’t vetoed trades for reasons that no one can really figure out (Stern again). But he didn’t throw himself on the tracks as the Jets and Nords steamed their way out of town when no one wanted to lose more money with either team, and fans that don’t know any better hate him for it. It’s idiotic.

    * – Replacement refs, sure.

    • The problem with him not trying to save the Jets or Nords is the whole longstanding loss of money in Phoenix. Nobody wants to lose more money with that team, but he’s been working hard to try and keep it running. Why did he not put that effort in previously? Why, for that matter, did he not try to keep the Minnesota North Stars, Hartford Whalers or even the Atlanta Thrashers?
      Why was he so willing to sell off northern teams in order to expand the league in the south with *no* evidence that it would result in better league revenues, but now is so willing to protect one southern team despite the evidence showing that moving north *would* result in better league revenues?

      • Well…the NHL underwriting the Yotes does give the NHL a nice capital loss each year, that may well link in with the general league revenues and as such it might affect both the players share of the pie as well as the revenue sharing program.

        Just speculating, but in the grand scheme of things when we’re speaking in terms of a billion dollar enterprise a loss here or there can turn out to a win when it comes to the bottom line.

      • It’s probably lawsuits or fear of them. The Thrash could be moved quickly because ASG was desperate to sell after their own internal lawsuits were finally settled.

      • There’s also the matter of legal precedent – the Yotes situation was TOTALLY different than Atlanta, in that this whole mess started when Balsille tried to buy them under the cloak of the original declaration of bankruptcy. That type of thing would create a major legal problem not just for the NHL, but for any other sports league.

        Since then, they have had a couple people try to buy the team, presumably with the intent of keeping it in Phoenix, but circumstances out of their control stopped things.

        (The reason why they want a team there, I’d think, have been well covered before – but take a look at US population migration patterns and you’ll see 99% of that story)

        And, again – Stern was losing money while keeping the Hornets in New Orleans (more as a PR gesture than anything else) and got lucky to make the money back when the Saints’ owner needed a PR boost. Kind of the same situation in Phoenix, only without the added legal implications.

  3. Is Gary Bettman good at what he does, or has been luck on two fronts — Canadian Dollar holding/gaining value against US Dollar and NBC wanting to get into cable sports programming?

    A closer look at his tenure is less positive, he took over in February 1993. Between 1991 and 1994 Lemieux, Gretzky and Messier were all in the Stanley Cup finals, as were teams from LA, NYC and Chicago. SI was touting the NHL > NBA.

    Bettman’s 1st big coup was allowing the ‘clutch and hold’ standard bearers NJ Devils take control of the NHL. Then the 1st of his (3 and counting) lockouts. Then a period of significant decline in play and revenue, along with mixed results for his forays into southern markets (Atlanta and Phoenix are confirmed disasters, Florida Panthers are close, Nashville and Tampa are limited successes, Carolina seems a firm success). Then the most boring period of hockey ever, culminating in lockout #2.

    Since that lockout, the NHL has slowly climbed back to close to where they were in 1994. Thanks to a strong Canadian dollar has helped drive the profitability of the big Canadian clubs and NBC’s attempt to compete with ESPN has gotten the NHL a semi-respectable national TV deal.

    But Gary Bettman is not some genius, he’s been helped by some luck and let’s remember that he’s the pawn of the owners. And this is a league of owners that allowed John Zeigler to be Commissioner for nearly 15 years!

    • “SI was touting the NHL > NBA. ”

      NO THEY WEREN’T. Read that freaking article instead of just looking at the cover.

  4. The owners didnt allow Zeigler to be commissioner, he was president. Gary Bettman is the NHL’s first and only.

    the clutch and grab era wasn’t Bettmans fault either.. We all know the NHL is a copycat league, so when the Montreal Canadiens lucked out ( Canada you can thank Billy Volek ) and won the stanley cup in 93 THATS what started the dead puck era ( i know, i know.. new jersey.. jacque lemaire blah blah blah…) not gary bettman.

    Also one question, if Bettman is gonna be tabbed as a bad commissioner because “he brought in the dead puck era” .. then why is Zeigler gonna get tabbed as a shitty president? he started in 1977.. the start of the beloved “firewagon ” hockey so shouldn’t he be the best president ever?

    yes, i know bad english.. cant help it

  5. Bettman, a weasel, snake and a liar but good for the business aspect of N.H.L. hockey, while at the same time the quality of the game has IMO declined talent-wise and there are many more serious injuries, poor and inconsistent rules, terrible officiating, etc., etc.. To me it says something about what the majority of hockey fans like to watch and be entertained by. I understand that this could be a long discussion of two different issues. To me, the business aspect of hockey and the standard of the quality of the game are two seperate issues that do merge in an interesting and disconcerting way that frankly concerns me.

    • The only way you could argue that the overall talent level has declined would be to say that the KHL has poached enough talent to offset the increase in the number of players from the rest of the world, specifically the US, in the NHL. And I just don’t see how those numbers work out. There’s more players being produced from an increased hockey-playing base. Kids are being drafted from Texas and California now!

      Defensive strategies and goaltending are much better, than during the high-scoring days of the 80s, which is the only reason why we’re not seeing crazy scoring (look at what passed for defence in regular-season hockey in the 80s; my nephew’s peewee team defends better than the 80s Kings / Jets / etc.). Heck, one of the biggest reasons scoring is down is that talented players are being put between the pipes at a young age, rather than that just being the shelter for the least athletic person on the ice. And for that, you can blame Patrick Roy (and his Finnish equivalent, I suppose), not Gary Bettman.

      • and lets not forget the fact that creativity gets sapped from the game because of players constantly being picked apart by 24 hour sports networks “better not draft that one-dimensional offensive guy” but everyone loves the (one dimensional ) stay at home defenseman “alexander semin is a lazy sack and a bad teammate” well that lazy sack has equal career numbers to Parise… long story short… pierre mcguire.. let the players do what they do best and STFU nOOb!!!

      • Stephen, I agree with your comment but with all due respect you missed my point. However, when I reread my comment, it was the way I wrote it that may have caused that. So, I just want to make this as short as possible to try to clarify. I debated even commenting on this one because as I said it would be a long discussion to do justice to the topic and get my points across. Further, I have been ranting my opinions on thescore blogs so much that I’m tired of it and even listening to myself. I have commented my views many times and it seems it just starts to get repetitive. Excuse me now then as I will just state a couple of things and not back them up in any way. I know. Not a good way to have a discussion but so be it. I suppose that it was the second sentence of my previous post that was my main point if you can read into it. IMO, talent and skill are not prioritized in todays game. That to me is the fault of the fans not Bettman. He is giving the audience what they want and so yes, he is doing his job. Hoping you can read into that without elaboration as well. I don’t like the state of hockey today nor the trends I see. The game could be so much better as it has all of the elements of a beautifully entertaining sport. Personally, I don’t like the man ( given I don’t know him of course ). Lots of the things that he has done and the way he operates irks me to no end. I believe that Gary Bettman has the power and the responsibility to try to make the game of hockey the best it can be. And, while I’m not sure nor convinced, I think that he could do so while at the same time maintaining the existing fan base and revenues and even see a drastic increase. What concerns me is that people seem to be satisfied with the status quo and the will for change in the N.H.L. doesn’t exist. If interested, my blogs on thescore re: Alex Semin, Goons, etc. may clarify my points.

  6. 3 Reasons why Gary “the jew” Bettman is a bad comissioner, 1.Salary Cap, 2. All the Lockouts, 3.Selling hockey where it shouldnt be sold.

  7. Bettman makes 8 million dollars a year..maybe he should take a pay cut. wait no now your messing with his nutt,but its ok to do the same thing to the players…i call bs on that.

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