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Wednesday July 23 2014
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Just a Tool

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Gary Bettman is a tool. Please, hold your applause until the end. Fans and players alike are quick to hurl a litany of defamatory and derogatory digs at the NHL Commissioner of two decades.

His distaste among the sport’s most loyal is on display annually when his Stanley Cup presentation is drowned out by a chorus of boos. Bettman hates hockey, Canadians and cameras. He is a basketball bigwig considered a cancer to the very league he serves. And certainly, he will kill the NHL if he hasn’t already.

Did I get that right?

One footnote that escapes the Bettman critics, though, is all the good he’s done for the sport. And, as far as the damage, how much is he to blame?

The current work stoppage is the NHL’s third since the former New York lawyer was announced as commissioner. Dating back to his 1992 inauguration, the league has lost nearly 2,500 games due to lockouts. That total amounts to almost 10 percent of all scheduled NHL contests under his reign. If that doesn’t impress you, maybe this will: no other North American professional sports league has even lost 1,000 games in the last 20 years.

Here are some more numbers for you.

When Bettman was hired as a young NBA executive to direct a flailing NHL, the sport was totalling $400 million per year in revenue. That figure is nearly $3 billion below what the league’s total earnings are now. The big boost can partly be credited to a $2 billion television deal with NBC –– a contract that likely wouldn’t have been available had Bettman caved to ESPN in 2005.

Even struggling teams are generating hundreds of millions of dollars each season. The average NHL organization is now worth $282 million according to Forbes. Quite impressive considering that total is just $118 million less than the entire league’s revenue was 20 years ago.

Not convinced? Examine the Phoenix Coyotes, for a second. Team finances have increased by 69% over the past decade, according to Time Magazine. Bettman also worked considerably with the begrudging city to keep the franchise in town for the near future. Certainly Penguins fans don’t forget his relentless work to stop our own organization from moving to Kansas City; it is perhaps the only thing keeping Pittsburghers interested in the NHL labor negotiations these days.

While we are on the subject of Southwest hockey, let’s take a look at another suggested flaw of the commissioner’s.

Far too often Bettman is blamed for failing franchises south of the Mason-Dixon. Plans for expansion, however, were rooted long before his tenure commenced. Only Nashville and Atlanta founded organizations under his watch. One is thriving; the other has been relocated to a booming capital in the country he ‘hates’.

Perhaps the biggest sign of success is the growth of youth hockey in non-traditional markets.

Arizona has seen a nearly 2,000 person boost over the last ten years. California now has more than 20,000 youth hockey players and is responsible for producing the Penguins 2010 first round draft pick. Florida calculated more than 800 percent growth since 2000 and hockey-haven Minnesota—who was awarded a new franchise at Bettman’s urging—has over 50,000 youth hockey players. In all, USA Hockey has grown by nearly 150 percent since the early 1990’s, according to Chris Peters of the United States of Hockey.

Somehow though, three lockouts outweigh all the progress Bettman has made. If it was accurate to blame him for the work stoppages, then the criticism would be justified. But, the commissioner is simply a mouthpiece for the owners who refuse to honor the outlandish contracts they distributed. His job is to please those men, even if he may not agree with the strategy. Don’t forget, it was Bettman who fought the Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Chris Pronger signings.

So, next time you blame the commissioner for hunting replacing hockey on television, remember, he is a just a tool.

I was in a minor league press box in Charlotte, NC, last month, taking in one of Gregory Polanco’s final triple-A games. A colleague, upon learning I was from Pittsburgh, approached me with a question.
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