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.