Courtesy Chris Creamer

This video popped up online last night at some point. Chris Chelios, Cam Neely and Wayne Gretzky, a few of hockey’s major stars at the time of the first NHL lockout all the way back in 1994, all spoke up against then-new NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Until that point, the NHL only had a “president”, but when Bettman took over from Gil Stein in 1993, he became the first commissioner. We know this already, but part of the issue with Bettman, and something he’s never been able to shake off, is the idea that he’s not a hockey guy, that he’s just some American lawyer determined to take over the game. Here’s the video:

There’s a great picture, one I couldn’t find online, of Gary Bettman just after he was named commissioner. He’s sitting on a beach somewhere, a young-looking lawyer in an oversized black and orange NHL jersey and cap and the most disingenuous smile you’ll ever see. In short, not a hockey guy. Neely saw it, Gretzky saw it, but Chelios had the best comments, in retrospect:

If I was Gary Bettman I’d be worried about my family or Gary Bettman’s family I’d be worried about my well-being now. He’s going to affect a lot of people you know and some crazed fan or you know, a player you know they might take it into their own hands and figure they’d get him out of the way and things might get settled. You hate to see something like that happen but he took the job.

The main thing is he doesn’t know anything about hockey, that’s obvious. You know he doesn’t recognize players like Jeremy Roenick and Brendan Shanahan in the meetings and you know, whether it’s just little man syndrome thing or whatever…

That was a weird period of expansion for the NHL, and you may as well call it the roaring nineties. Everybody had money, and everybody was determined to spend it. Artificial means of creating money, through selling franchises to high bidders and cashing in on expansion fees made a lot of people periodically rich. The problem is that as revenues increased, the NHLPA under the leadership of Bob Goodenow was much more ready for the impending explosion of cash.

If modern NHL owners think that dishing out 57 per cent of league revenues is “more fair” than they intend, imagine the 76 per cent spent back in 2003-2004. However, due to the NHL’s big win back during the 1994-95 lockout, which set the age for unrestricted free agents at 31, most of the big money free agents were well past their prime.

This is the "most 90s" NHL jersey.

Back to Bettman, though. It was a period of change as the sport modernized itself to keep pace with what was happening in basketball and baseball and football. The league ditched the historical names of the divisions and conferences, going with a more traditional “Western” and “Eastern” format. Divisional playoffs were scrapped, third jerseys were instituted. I look back on the late 1990s in hockey not as a time of childhood nostalgia but of puzzled bewilderment.

The hockey was pretty bad, too, if I can recall. Not just due to trap and defensive systems, but I have this lingering belief that the NHL expanded way too fast and the talent-level never caught up. At the time of the original expansion in 1967, there was already so much talent in the AHL that it was practically a secondary league. The late 1990s gave rise to the literal term “plugger” and it wasn’t helped as the NHL expanded again in the early 2000s.

The hockey was terrible, the jerseys were awful, nobody was going to games, the players were overpaid, and, perhaps worst of all, Mark Messier was a Vancouver Canuck.

That’s all a result of Bettman’s effect on the game, somebody who just didn’t “get it”. In retrospect, however, you wouldn’t necessarily want the business face of a league to be a sportsman. You’d want him to be good at business. To me, David Stern doesn’t look like the type of guy who would pull up for a jump shot and I can’t see Bud Selig being particularly good at anything baseball-related other than scratching himself on camera, but that isn’t their job. They’re supposed to be business figureheads, not ex-jocks.

Gary Bettman, explaining his revenue sharing plan.

MALAISE

For all his faults, Bettman has done a good job at selling the game to corners of the game you wouldn’t expect to find hockey, and we’re beginning to see the effects of relocation and expansion efforts throughout the United States. There are simply better players coming out of the States than their ever were, and as a whole that makes the product more enjoyable to watch. It means that there are enough NHL-calibre players to fill 30 teams and about 100 players going around that you turn into a game specifically to watch.

This game has gone from a popular sport in Canada and the Northeastern United States into a multi-billion dollar enterprise in Canada and the Northeastern United States, with niche markets across the continent. The fact that more people will be affected by the 2012 lockout than the 1994-95 lockout or the 2004-05 lockout means that we’re closer to a solution than we were in any of those other years.

What bugs us about the 2012 lockout, though, is that with revenues directly tied to salaries, is that there’s no real long-term goal for either side here. The owners got their cap and the players have millions of dollars. There is nothing on the table, nothing that offers to fix the system for the smaller markets, nothing that offers to help weaker teams compete or ensure long-term labour peace. These were things that were supposed to be covered last time.

In the end, Bettman’s greatest weakness, that he’s not a hockey guy, was also his greatest strength. The game grew and made money in amounts and in places that nobody ever expected it to. That’s settled, so now what? Now it’s just a game of chicken.

NHLers have gone overseas, or to the AHL, to find work, playing hockey for 30 cents on the dollar and are convincing the world that they can’t play for any less than they signed their contracts for. Owners aren’t looking to fix the system for any plausible length of time, they just want to see costs cut, and will agree to pay players as little as they possibly can before they start to lose out on any substantial revenue.

The players’ leverage this time around comes from the fact that the league is making significant money, and the top ten most valuable, and powerful, franchises in the NHL are looking to lose some serious coin the longer this goes on. That never existed before. The owners would have to be colossally stupid to see this thing go longer than a couple of months and stretch into January.

Bettman’s not about hockey, never was, and none of this lockout is either. Nothing will be fixed. This is just a billion dollar game of chicken. At the very least, can we have back the old orange and black shield? The silver one never fit.

Comments (2)

  1. Agreed on all counts… Especially with the Orange and Black shield.

  2. This post started tremendously!! What an epic interview with Chelly, I wonder why he doesn’t chirp in, or the Great One chirp in on this Lockout??

    Meh, October 1-5, Lockout ends.. BOOK IT!

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