It’s Time to Appreciate Gary Bettman

Photo Courtesy: NNC Public Affairs

Author: Jordan Mazzara 

The National Football League rules all in America. They are the role model your parents want you to become. To keep up with the clichés, in life there are three guarantees, though: death, taxes, and “booing” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell every time he walks on a public stage. It’s the cool thing to do. Now, I’m no Roger Goodell fan. I won’t defend him. He’s a figurehead that the owners attempt to manipulate (Jerry Jones), and he can’t seem to make a decisive statement. Whether it’s his inconsistencies with player punishment or his stance on Colin Kaepernick, his public relations skills are mediocre at best, but he’s built a powerhouse.  

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is trying to do the same thing. He’s had his fair share of criticism, whether it’s the multiple lockouts, questionable relocation and expansion choices, or my favorite, the Winter Olympics – but we’ll get to that later. 

Instead, ponder this. It’s April of 1992 and you’re looking to watch some playoff hockey. You’re not in a local market, so you’re hoping these games aren’t blacked out (remember you can’t just look this up on your iPhone back then). To your disapproval, these games are blacked out. No worries, you can catch the highlights with on ESPN’s SportsCenter with Stuart Scott in the morning. Now, fast forward to 2017, and every single Stanley Cup Playoff game can be found on national television because of the contracts Bettman worked out with NBC.  

Playoff hockey is supreme to all else in the sports world. Even everyone’s beloved ESPN, which is famous for its neglect of hockey at all levels and even recently cleaned house on most of its hockey staff, showcased a poll in 2014 on SportsCenter showing The Stanley Cup Playoffs as the best out of all major sports. Allowing the entire nation the savor the fruit that is these playoffs has yielded league revenues to erupt 605%, adjusted for inflation, between the 1992-93 season, when Bettman became commissioner, and the 2015-16 season.  

The NHL is able to provide this unmatched product year in and year out because of the first-class worldwide talents that dream of playing in North America, leading me to my next point – The Olympics. Bettman has been widely criticized for keeping the NHL out of the 2018 Winter Olympics. To be fair, a lot of the disapproval is fair since much of the decision was based on money – you can’t shut down a league for two weeks and not lose revenue. However, the choice can also be framed in a way of yielding a true grassroots effort to build hockey across the world. Although the top two feeder countries for the NHL are Canada (67 percent) and the United States (16 percent), some of the finest talent can be found abroad. Russia produced Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, Finland produced Pekka Rinne and Teemu Selanne, and Sweden produced Erik Karlsson and Nicklas Lindstrom. In order for the NHL to continue to grow and be competitive, it needs the European players to continue developing utmost talents. 

And that means more than just the traditional Russians, Fins and Swedes. For those that remember, in the 2014 Winter Olympics, an inexperienced Latvian team qualified and showed out. With just one NHL player on their roster and on the back of Kristers Gudlevskis, who posted back-to-back 50-save performances, the Latvian team battled to the quarterfinals. They fell only to the eventual gold-medalist, Canada, 2-1. Without NHL competition out in the mix this year, it evens the playing field for teams like Latvia to make a true run for the gold medal. Imagine what that would mean to a country of under two million people. Imagine how many kids would turn to their parents and say, “Take me to the pond, Dad, I want to be just like them.” 

The first step to growing the game of hockey is building excitement around it. That’s what Bettman is trying to do. In making choices like avoiding the Olympics, he couldn’t care less what you think. And that’s exactly what the game needs.