NHL milestones and issues of the Gary Bettman era
Gary Bettman celebrated 20 years in office as the NHL's Commissioner on February 1, and let's just say that his tenure has been eventful. Here are some of the major stories and issues during his watch:
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When Gary Bettman took office, the NHL had two conferences (Campbell, Wales) and four six-team divisions (Norris, Smythe, Adams, Patrick) with decidedly geographically-unfriendly traditional names. His first full season began with them renamed (Eastern, Western; Northeast, Atlantic, Central, Pacific) and the deck shuffled as the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim came on and the former Minnesota North Stars arrived in Dallas. In 1998, the NHL adopted its current six-division format, adding the Southeast and Northwest. Teams have hopscotched from one division to another, and the issue now is how to get Winnipeg out of the Southeast where the Jets don't exactly have a natural rivalry with the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Of course, the Red Wings would like to move to the Eastern Conference. Before last season, the NHL's Board of Governors adopted a radical realignment plan that would have created four conferences, but the players fought it, insisting that they have a say. That plan may still take place. Bring a map.
Relocation may be inevitable for pro leagues, and at least the NHL hasn't had a team sneaking off in U-Hauls at 4 a.m. to avoid mass protest, though fans in Minnesota (1993, to Dallas), Quebec (1995, Denver), Winnipeg (1996, Phoenix) and Hartford (1997, Carolina) weren't thrilled to lose their clubs. Atlanta (2011, to Winnipeg) was a case of expansion and the quest for success in non-traditional markets gone sour. Nashville, Florida, Dallas and Columbus have had their financial struggles, and the Coyotes saga drags on with Seattle looming as a possible destination. It also isn't unthinkable that hockey-mad Quebec might get a team again.
NHL owners have tended to be a roguish lot (see: Harold Ballard) and Bettman's tenure has had its share of headaches as Bruce McNall (Kings), John Rigas (Sabres), Peter Pocklington (Oilers), William "Boots" Del Biaggio (Predators), and Tom Hicks (Stars), among others have become embroiled in financial difficulty, bankruptcy or scandal. The most notorious and embarrassing instance occurred in 1997 when a con man named John Spano tried to buy the Stars, and then the struggling Islanders for $165 million, only to be charged with bank and wire fraud.
Any buzz momentum from the New York Rangers' first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years was halted in its tracks by a work stoppage. Bettman and the owners faced off with Bob Goodenow and the NHLPA over a salary cap, which the players would agree to only for rookies. The season didn't begin until January 20, with 468 games lost to the negotiations that resulted in the rookie cap and unrestricted free agency for players age 32 and older. The abbreviated season consisted of a 48-game schedule with no contests outside of a team's own conference. Never again, right?
Many standards have been changed during the Bettman reign, from obstruction to headshots, the size of goaltenders' equipment, the dimensions of the crease and neutral zone, overtime formats (including 4-on-4 play and the "loser's point" in 1999) and a switch from home teams wearing traditional white to dark sweaters. After Lockout No. 2, a huge effort was made to end the so-called Dead Puck Era of the neutral zone trap and boost scoring. The red line was eliminated, greatly increasing the speed (and danger) of the game, goalies were restricted to playing the puck within a trapezoidal area behind their nets ("the Martin Brodeur Rule"), and a shootout was added, antagonizing traditionalists who saw it as nothing more than a gimmick.
The decision to allow NHL players to participate has been a winner, ever since Buffalo Sabres netminder Dominik Hasek led the Czechs to a surprise gold at Nagano in 1998. Though some owners and NHL people say there hasn't been a direct economic benefit to the league from having the best players on the biggest stage, devoted and casual fans have enjoyed seeing the game played at its fastest and most skilled. Unlike All-Star games, this is hockey with intensity, but without violence, and you'd be hard pressed to find a player who has something negative to say about his experience. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Martin Brodeur all speak of their Olympic moments as career highlights. And no matter what he does as an NHL player, Sidney Crosby will never score a bigger goal than his overtime gold-medal-winner at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
After retiring in April 1999, the game's greatest player and ambassador spent nearly a decade with the Coyotes, as part-owner, head of hockey operations, and coach. Though he failed to reach the playoffs during his four seasons behind the bench, the Great One worked to establish the NHL in Arizona's non-traditional market. When the franchise filed for bankruptcy in 2009, he stepped down and is reportedly still owed $8 million on his contract, a black mark given that the NHL has been running the team ever since, though the league has maintained that the money should come from former owner Jerry Moyes. Still, the ongoing inability to settle this matter and return Gretzky to a prominent role in the league has to fall somewhat at the commissioner's feet.
In 2003, the Oilers hosted the Canadiens in the Heritage Classic, the NHL's first outdoor game since the 1991 preseason. Minus-20-degree temperatures didn't prevent 57,000 fans from attending what would surely be a one-time event only Northern Canadians could embrace. Hardly. In 2008, the NHL introduced the popular Winter Classic on New Year's Day. The game, which has been held in Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (a 2011 Heritage Classic was played in Calgary) are highlights on players' resumes and have spawned revealing inside looks on HBO's 24/7. Liev Schreiber spinning yarns about how the game "engraves its way onto the body and envelopes itself around the soul" warms the hockey heart each winter and attracts casual viewers.
Once again, the legions of Bettman and Goodenow dropped their gloves over salaries, revenue sharing and a luxury tax. For the first time in the history of major North American pro sports, an entire season was cancelled due to labor negotiations gone sour. Fans spat out the words "hard cap" and "cost certainty" as though they were Bob Clarke's front teeth as the league dropped 1,230 games and a ton of goodwill just as the game was gaining more fans. The players disputed the NHL's numbers, though some franchises had declared bankruptcy, and in the end the union caved, accepting a $39 million cap, a 24 percent pay cut and a reduction from 75 to 57 percent in their overall share of revenue rather than lose the 2005-06 season as well.
After the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL became the object of derision by leaving ESPN and striking a rinky-dink two-year, $130 million deal with the obscure network VERSUS, which offered wall-to-wall coverage -- assuming fans could find it. (In 2007, a four-year extension deal was worked out.) Things got better after the league signed a 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC, in which VERSUS' parent company (Comcast) had acquired a majority stake, in 2011. Every playoff game got national distribution in the U.S. Of course, the NFL is making $3 billion per season on its network contract and the NBA is getting $930 million, so $200 million annually is small potatoes. There is nightly coverage on the NHL Network and the league's web delivery systems that still suffer from too many hiccups and dropped connections. It's vital to make choices that reach the widest audience possible, even if the immediate dollars are less than what could be earned through traditional means.
The contracts awarded to Rick DiPietro (2006: 15 years, $67.5 million), Ilya Kovalchuk (2010: 15 years, $100 million), Roberto Luongo (12 years, $64 million), Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (13 years, $98 million apiece) don't expire when the players reach age 75; it only seems that way. (Think Alexei Yashin, to whom the Islanders gave a 10-year, $87.5 million deal in 2001 and will continue to pay through 2014-15). The great irony of front-loaded/back-end-diving deals (Parise and Suter will make $2 million or less during the last three seasons of theirs) is that by trying to dodge the salary cap they fought so hard for at the cost of the 2004-05 season, the owners sewed the seeds of the 2012-13 lockout during which the players were asked to make term and pay concessions to save the owners from themselves.
The sight of a shaken Sidney Crosby leaving the ice at the 2011 Winter Classic after a blindside hit by Washington's David Steckel was a bad omen. The game's premier superstar would play in only 22 more games during the next 24 months. Many other players were sidelined indefinitely by concussions aswell. And in one four-month period in 2011, the deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak rocked the hockey world and sparked a more intense debate about fighting and the cumulative dangers of head trauma. Hockey's darkest summer made that discussion more critical than ever.
In response to the seemingly capricious, dartboard nature of Colin Campbell's rulings on headshots and other dangerous hits, former forward Brendan Shanahan was made the NHL's Senior Vice President of Player Safety in June 2011 and entrusted with consistently issuing supplemental discipline. Agree or disagree with his calls, Shanahan has done his job with integrity and a sincere sensitivity to the game, justifying his decisions to suspend players with accompanying video and explanations of the plays in question. As players and teams become more aware of the cumulative effects of head injuries on the long-term health of those affected, this initiative looks like one of the better ones during the Bettman era.
Despite record revenues ($3.3 billion) and TV ratings, the NHL put the breaks on its own momentum for thethird time in two decades. Bettman and the owners found themselves up against a wily new adversary: ex-MLBPA boss Donald Fehr, whom the players enlisted for the clash over shares of hockey related revenue, the salary cap, and contract terms. The impasse dragged on for 116 days, with the season again shortened to 48 games. Bettman estimated during the stoppage that, "the business is probably losing between $18 and $20 million a day and the players are losing between $8 and $10 million a day." The loss to the NHL's luster, especially with the cancellation of the biggest edition yet of the Winter Classic, was harder to measure, but despite threats of boycott, fans returned in droves for the first puck drop.