In defense of Gary Bettman


Yeah we said it. We are going to defend Gary Bettman. So what? Wanna fight about it?

As anyone with operating eye and ear organs knows, there is a lot of talk around the league about how half the teams in the NHL are seemingly on the verge of mid-game economic collapse. The poster boy for economic woe is of course the Phoenix Coyotes and their owner Jerry Moyes. Despite the overwhelming challenges these “solvency challenged” teams face, one guy remains squarely in their corner, performing the thankless job of propping up screwed franchises as he has for over 16 years:

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league is trying to help the financially struggling Phoenix Coyotes and called reports of the franchise’s demise “ridiculous” on Wednesday night. Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes has been seeking buyers for the Coyotes, who reportedly are losing more than $30 million per year.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of speculation and commentary about the state of the Coyotes and most of it has been terribly unfair to the Coyotes, to the players and to the fans,” Bettman said. Obviously, there are issues we’re working on – getting some capital infusion for the club … possibly some new partners for Jerry Moyes or even a possible sale.”

Bettman would not disclose the names of any potential financial partners for the Coyotes but said “we’re working on bringing this to a conclusion by season’s end.”

Bettman also said the NHL “has a good track record” of helping other struggling teams get financially healthy again and dismissed speculation that the Coyotes would be relocated.

“The reports of the franchise’s demise are just ridiculous,” he said. “Jerry Moyes has been committed to Glendale and committed to the Coyotes. All of this blanket characterization of ‘hockey doesn’t work in the Sun Belt’ is just hogwash. I think the Coyotes have a bright future on the ice.”

We are starting to feel for Bettman a little bit these days. In certain circles, the guy is about as popular as Chris Brown (post limo-ride) and he takes a constant beating on sites, radio shows, message boards and articles all around the league. If you listen to some folk, Bettman is to blame for pretty much everything that is going wrong in the NHL. As fun as it is to rag on the guy for not comprehending the importance of fighting in the game or for his repeated attempts to “Americanize” the game, it’s evident that his job is getting less and less fun with each passing day of this economic hullabaloo.

At the risk of being unpopular—oh wait who gives a shit?—we’re going to come to his defense for two reasons. Firstly, we know that we will eventually be sued in some capacity by the legal arm of the NHL. We want to get this article entered into the Internet Vault long before we come face to face with a pantheon of lawyers that will claim we hate every business facet of the NHL. Secondly, we think that if it weren’t for Gary Bruce Bettman, none of us would be sitting here on a Wednesday morning in February, warily eyeing a playoff berth on behalf of the Edmonton Oilers. It was his support of small market Canadian teams—coupled with the efforts of many, not least of which include the EIG—that allowed the team to remain in E-Town.

Yeah, yeah we know. “Gary Bettman doesn’t like fighting. Gary Bettman is against no-touch icing. Gary Bettman has been sent to Earth via wormhole to alter the space-time continuum and tip the balance of power in the Delta Quadrant.” This may very well be the case, but let’s take a trip down memory lane and put his reign in proper context shall we? Anyone have to go to the bathroom before we leave? No?


The Bettman Years


We can vividly recall when ol’ Uncle Gary took to the stage in 1993. These were the dark days—you will recall Nation—when every second story on the news about the Oilers involved their imminent departure to somewhere warm and sunny. TSN had even gone so far as to make a graphic for the story—a mocked up For Sale sign with an Oilers logo displayed front and centre. Did you think the OilersNation forgot about your treachery TSN? You heartless sons of bitches... Commissioner Stein had just checked out of his one-year tenure as NHL President, which had given him ample time to call his own number and be shadily inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. On February 1, 1993 the reins were handed to Bettman and a new era began for the NHL.

We can remember the day that a young and brash Gary Bettman swaggered into Edmonton fresh from his doings over at the NBA. The NHL was then much like it is today: no national US TV deal, relatively small revenues compared to other leagues and labour unrest waiting around every corner. Bruce McNall was chairman of the NHL board of governors, for heavens sake—and was looking forward to a long career as an NHL owner and a non-inmate of the United States Penal System. Here in E-Town the Oilers bench solidly outnumbered the crowd in the stands at RX1 and most of the front office staff busied themselves preparing for a move to Atlanta, Hamilton, Houston or worse.

Bettman rolled in and talked about his commitment to seeing teams remain in Canada and his further commitment to small-market teams that were struggling financially. These promises were promptly met with the almost immediate departure of both the Nordiques and Jets for the States. For a prepubescent Wanye, there was little to suggest that the Oilers wouldn’t be the next to depart. We were convinced that the Oil were as good as gone and began crying ourselves to sleep on a nightly basis while tightly clutching our Jason Arnott sweatpants.

But as the mid-90s progressed and the years went on, the oddest thing happened: the Oilers didn’t leave town and Bettman held true to his word that he would do his best to keep the Oil in Edmonton. Bettman “championed the Canadian assistance plan, a revenue-sharing agreement that saw American teams give money to help support the four small-market Canadian teams—Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Vancouver—throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. When the Oil sold for a jaw dropping $200,000,000 last year, the good fans of the OilersNation and the gigantic wallet of Kay-Z repaid Mr. Bettman’s faith many, many times over. But one must never forget that there were a great many years in the middle where Bettman worked with the City, and various other orders of government and the business community here in Edmonton to keep the team on the ice and our Oilers sweatpants firmly on our legs.

Fast forward to good times


We can recall seeing Bettman on the Jumbotron at RX1 during the Cup run of ‘06. These were slightly different times in the Nation and we were all in the process of cheering each and every Oilers related anything we came across:

Guy at the corner has an Oilers flag on his car?

Radio stations play Nickelback or one of the dozens of Oilers tribute songs?

Gary Bettman is on the jumbotron?

We can distinctly recall his look of genuine happiness as Bettman appeared on the big screen and saluted the crowd, the members of which were busy unbolting their chairs from the arena stands and throwing them into the air with joy. The look on his face seemed to suggest that Bettman’s plan to “keep a team in this Siberian Railtown” had worked.*

Like it or not, Nation, this guy knows his business of hockey and most likely goes to bed at night wishing that he had arenas full of rabid Oilers-fan types paying in American dollars to see American Teams.  He may not have strapped on the old skateroos and played in some Byzantine hockey league but we have to think that after 16 years on the job he has earned more respect than he is given.

*We made this quote up.

Where my TV deal at?

One of the common gripes against Bettman is his inability to sell the game south of the border and his insistence on favouring American over Canadian cities when looking to expand or relocate NHL teams. Bear in mind that Bettman has been trying to sell our favourite game to American TV networks for 16 years. And it hasn’t been all bad—before we all laugh heartily at his efforts to sign these TV deals let’s take a quick look at his track record since taking the job:

Bettman quickly accomplished one of his stated goals, signing a five-year, $155 million deal with the Fox Broadcasting Company to broadcast NHL games nationally beginning in the 1994–95 season. The deal was significant, as a network television contract in the United States was long thought unattainable during the presidency of John Ziegler.

Despite falling ratings, Bettman negotiated a five year, $600 million deal with ABC and ESPN in 1998. It was the largest television contract the NHL ever signed. The $120 million per year that ABC and ESPN paid for rights dwarfed the $5.5 million that the NHL received from American national broadcasts in 1991–92.

The NHL’s television fortunes have faded since the ABC deal, however. In 2004, the league could only manage a revenue sharing deal with NBC, with no money paid up front by the network. Also, coming out of the lockout, ESPN declined its $60 million option for the NHL’s cable rights in 2005–06. While wishing to retain the NHL, it stated the cost was overvalued. However, Bettman was able to negotiate a deal with Comcast to air the NHL on the Outdoor Life Network channel, now called Versus. The three year deal was worth $207.5 million. Bettman has been heavily criticized for the move to Versus, as detractors have argued that the league has lost a great deal of exposure since moving to the much smaller network.

First off, where in the hell did the Outdoor Life Channel get its greasy hands on $207.5 million? Does someone at the network have naked pictures of the President of Comcast? Holy crap! Secondly, you think you’re frustrated at your job? Imagine Bettman. First, he signs a gigantic TV deal within 18 months of taking the job, then despite falling ratings he is somehow able to re-up a deal four times as big. What should be one of the legacies of his tenure has now become a black eye as the deals have gotten progressively worse, ratings have tailed off and the NHL is essentially right back where it started, though they do have an impossibly lucerative Versus deal in their pocket. Reading this timeline, you get the feeling that Bettman has consisetently delivered the best TV deal available to him. It is the ratings that are killing the collective efforts of the NHL.

It’s this inability to attract legions of new beer swilling, t-shirt purchasing and hard rock loving American fans to the game that has haunted Bettman and Company throughout his reign at the top of the NHL chart.

Same old, same old

It must be like Groundhog day for Bettman over at NHL offices with the essentially the same to do list every single day:

  1. Help (insert screwed Franchise here) get back on its feet;
  2. Get better TV deal for league; and,
  3. Shake head in disbelief at quarterly NASCAR ratings.

Can you imagine being NHL Commissioner for 16 years? Watching owner after owner get carted off to jail, dealing with franchises perpetually flying into the ground at Mach 11 and yet still having the task of attracting new sponsors, broadcasters and franchise owners? How about not one but two labour disputes on your watch as players and owners engage in a marathon game of “who is the bigger bunch of idiots?” Still want the job? That kind of blind perseverance alone in the face of tremendous losses should make him an Honorary Citizen of the OilersNation.

For a man who is so powerful that after three phone calls he had his half brother Jeffrey named Commissioner of the World Series of Poker it must be an exercise in frustration on most days.



Now that this economic shitstorm (represented in the picture above as the burned out engine of a car) is going down in the US, the shoe is on the other foot. Canadian teams now seem to be amongst the most stable and it’s a great many American teams that are in now in dire financial trouble. Bettman is faced with another round of doing what he has always done: putting out fires, propping up the weak sisters of the league and insisting that all is fine. It’s no day at the beach defending unscrupulous owners in dubious hockey markets in an attempt to keep leverage in negotiations with new unscrupulous owners in these same dubious hockey markets.

5,848 days after he started as Commissioner of the League, Gary Bettman faces the exact same problems that were on his plate on Day One. Mentally stunted owners that alternate between spending like drunken sailors and going tits up. A crappy TV deal that while potentially lucerative, lacks the large scale exposure that will be necessary to one day grow the game south of the border. Waning interest in many secondary US markets which threatens numerous teams already weakened by the stalled economy.  This is the NHL as it stands today. And still Gary goes to work every morning trying to shore things up and improve the league so that we may enjoy the game for years to come.

Bless his heart. Seriously.


  • RCN

    If the man could actually admit that all is not well and stop insulting our collective intelligence…. he would get a lot more support. Although, I have always wondered why he is so vehemently booed every time he hands the cup out.


  • RCN

    @ Travis Dakin:

    And I completely agree with your point. I think it's more the job of the media and the talking heads to point out the obvious in Phoenix. It's the job of the league and Bettman to pay the interim bills and find a long term solution to the issue while saying nothing to undermine the value of the team, the viability of an NHL franchise as an investment or to diss the City of Glendale/Scottsdale/Phoenix or whatever they are calling themselves.

    TD and I could write a book back and forth about the pros and cons about moving teams all over hells half acre. I obviously think that Flin Flon should have 3 NHL teams before Kansas City gets anything but that is neither here nor there.

    Say what you want about the NHL of late – it's stable at least. I think moving teams around with the frequency of Spanish Arena Football would do little to attract better quality owners and more committed fanbases. The NBA moves teams around far too often IMO.

    If I had to put my finger on what is holding back the NHL from moving up in the pecking order of the big four leagues I would say it is as follows:

    1. The overall economy
    2. Inability to excite the unwashed American masses
    3. Lack of a major American TV deal to broadcast games
    4. Poor media exposure overall in the US (papers, radio, ESPN etc)

    I would also say that better quality owners would do nothing but help the game and the league and this is where I think things are really falling down. Everytime you let some asswad like those clowns in TBay buy a team, every time a Boots Del whatever pops up in Nashville, it greatly undermines the league as a business.

    Imagine they could sell a franchise to someone like Rupert Murdoch. Aside from his direct pipeline to Satan, Murdoch's media empire would do wonders for the NHL.

    Instead the NHL is only able to attract the guy who made Saw. This is why they love Katz – much to the chagrin of Deep Oil.

  • RCN

    @ Wanye Gretz:
    I totally understand the spin doctor roll, it's just to sit there and say there is nothing wrong with say, the Coyotes while you are busy using league finances to prop them up is a little hard to swallow. His insistance on allowing teams to lose money when there are clearly better markets for them (and I don't mean Winnipeg- sorry guys but you f*cked up by building a 15,000 seater) out there is baffling. He wouldn't sell to Balsillie yet let Leipold bail on the Preds to take over the Wild… It's mind boggling. Credit where credit is due, He along with the great EIG did save our mighty oil but like the EIG, his time has come and gone. But having said that, I will forever be thankful for what he did.


  • RCN

    I read the book "Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey" by Russ Conway. I gained a new appreciation for Bettman after reading that book. John Ziegler, Alan Eagleson and Bill Wirtz all had a straglehold on the league and they controlled the players and the CBA strong enough to keep salaries hidden which kept the salaries for all the players down. Not to mention the disgusting way they handled disability payouts (or lack thereof) to veteran and retired players. There was a quote in the book from Bettman, when he just joined the NHL, where he said "my new house is full of termites" or something like that. It showed that he saw the corruption and that he didn't agree with it and that he was willing to clean it up.

    I also had a new appreciation for Ritch Winters as he spoke out and fought against Alan Eagleson well before Gary came along and well before Russ Conway's book and investigating came out.

  • RCN

    @ Travis Dakin:

    As the guy who is effectively in charge of the business that is the NHL it is his job to present that solid "all is well front." Admitting things are not well in a non-constructive fashion will only serve to destabilize the league further.

    You're right though about the booing. I think he needs to be more approachable or at least easier to relate to. Though if I was President of anything I would insist no one look me directly in the eye and I would have a team of body guards that would tazer anyone who comes within 15 feet of me.

  • RCN

    Wanye: Why so much negativity? Everything is fine. Fine, I tell you.
    — The hockey market in Glendale is one Stanley Cup run from cutting operating losses by as much as 10 per cent.
    — Fans in Nashville will be back, if they can somehow find their way out of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge (seating capacity 43) and buy the tickets the team already bought.
    — Economic crisis? NHL governors planned all along to be operating with a $17.5 million salary cap by 2010-11. That's not a disaster, it's frugal.
    — As a back-up to escrow, Bettman's already working on an arrangement with Pay Day Loan Inc., to ensure all franchises have adequate cash flow to cover the contracts of the 100-plus players who are now signed through 2015.
    — While not widely reported, Bettman is closing in on a national TV deal that will capture a younger demographic and see a record number of games broadcast on The Treehouse Network, Channel 17 (local blackouts apply). Word is, Bob The Builder and Upsy Daisy will host NHL Tonight on the Big Comfy Couch.

  • RCN

    Wow, ya, I guess. Bettman can be a douche, but at least the OIl are still in Etown!!!! I can't believe how many jets and nordique hats, shirts and uni's I still see…makes ya think how close we came to the abyss!!!!

  • RCN

    @ Robin B:
    Pay Day loans? Aren't they the "Three Bucks on a Hun" company? Seems legit to me.

    Maybe they could get Dora the Explorer to do the player interviews? I'm sure her questions couldn't be worse than Mean Genes, could they?

    Wayne; People always boo Bettman when he hands out the cup bc he rambles on about how great the owners, and the organization are, and what a pretty trophey Lord Stanely is. Just give the cup to the Captain and exit stage left Gary!

    Top Gun articel Wayne, Top Gun!

  • RCN

    Wanye Gretz wrote:

    @ Travis Dakin:
    As the guy who is effectively in charge of the business that is the NHL it is his job to present that solid “all is well front.” Admitting things are not well in a non-constructive fashion will only serve to destabilize the league further.

    That's only one side of the coin though.

    Using the Oilers as an example, yes they pretty much had the skate sharpening machine booked for shipping to Houston and Bettman played a big role in keeping them here BUT it still came down to the fans in order for it to happen. The cicumstances were very clear and what was needed from the fans and business community was also very clear. When push came to shove the fans signed on and the business community stepped up.

    Fast forward to today and you are not seeing the same type of ultimatum's being issued. An ultimatum that proved necessary in the past.

    When you listen close enough to what Bettman says, I think he is being pretty honest if not completely forthright. But because he is so cryptic he comes off as dismissive of how significant the problems are.

    What is the only way Phoenix gets back on it's feet? It's not by finding another investor willing to lose money it is by challenging the fans to show that they want the team to stay. Until that happens it is just shuffling the deck chairs.

    It's a shame too because the team appears poised to take a nice step forward on the ice and yet Don Maloney was basically quoted in Mark Spector's article that he can't even negotiate a contract extension with Morris, who he wants to keep, because his hands are tied financially until the end of June. How that type of situation not considered dire?

    Presenting some spin that things aren't as bad as they seem is likely doing more harm than good in this case because as of yet there hasn't even been a hint of indication that the people of Phoenix know they have to step up or simply aren't willing to do so.

    If they have no intention of doing so under any circumstance then Bettman is being negligent in getting that franchise out of there. Canada, where hockey is a religion, lost two franchises so I have a hard time figuring out why there would be such bad optics if a city in the desert did the same thing.

  • RCN

    Chaz wrote:

    Maybe they could get Dora the Explorer to do the player interviews? I’m sure her questions couldn’t be worse than Mean Genes, could they?

    Except Dora's busy filming "Dora gets down and dirty, the teenage years"

  • RCN

    Robin B, It is with a sick feeling that I know who/what Bob the Builder, Upsy Daisy and the big comfy couch is. How can you tell I have the envious task of raising some future Oiler fans. (and loving every minute of it!)

  • RCN

    Wanye Gretz wrote:

    I just think that he really has no obligation to disclose the finances of a privately held company to a media that will run with the story and do nothing but dramatically lower the value of the team in the process.

    To play the devil's advocate, Bettman had no issues with running to the media saying that most teams were losing money and things were in dire straights as the league headed into the lockout and for the entire year it was on.

    So although I agree that he doesn't have an obligation to disclose everything there is an element of precedence that the media can hold up to try and keep Bettman consistant in how he does things.

  • RCN

    Hasn't the commisioner already found enough solid investors to bail out other markets? I present your new partner in the Nashville Hockey Club – Mr. Boots Delbaggio.

    Articles are being written about Calgarian W Brett Wilson buying a stake in Nashville now – yes the guy from "Dragons Den" who hands out money because he has TOO MUCH OF IT. Another charity project for him. I would imagine Bettman is phoning him every 10 minutes now.

  • RCN

    @ Rick:
    Again I agree with you Rick – Bettman does have some level of obligation to disclose how franchises are operating – particularly given the amount of public dollars invested in most of these teams.

    I'm just saying that at this stage of the game – when the NHL/Coyotes have most likely entered into negotiations with parties to come and inject cash into the franchise in the next few months- overly negative or alarming statements would do nothing except lessen the value of the team.

  • RCN

    Rick wrote:

    When you listen close enough to what Bettman says, I think he is being pretty honest if not completely forthright. But because he is so cryptic he comes off as dismissive of how significant the problems are.

    You make excellent points Rick. I just think that he really has no obligation to disclose the finances of a privately held company to a media that will run with the story and do nothing but dramatically lower the value of the team in the process. He is being as honest as he really needs to be IMO, saying 'there are issues, they are being dealt with.'

    Job #1 for Bettman is to solve the problem in Phoenix. Telling the rabid hordes of journalists the full extent of the issue is a disservice to everyone involved. It's kind of like a Doctor telling a dying patient 'things are going to be fine.' It doesn't really do anyone any harm to put up a false front of positivity in either situation I don't think.

    I also think Maple Syrup is a valid substitute for KY Jelly so really who cares what I think though.