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The Man who Killed Hockey in North America

April 8, 2017

Trick Question:  Who was the commissioner of the National Hockey League before Gary Bettman?

Answer: No one.

 

Now how can that be?  Well, before 1993, the NHL didn't have a Commissioner, they had a president.  The owners were displeased with President John Ziegler Jr. after the settlement of hockey's first general strike of 10 days in 1992.  After the strike's resolution, Gil Stein was named the new president.  Gil Stein had worked for the Philadelphia Flyers and then the NHL league office before becoming president.  As Gil Stein stumbled (he's no peach himself), the owners swiftly moved Gary Bettman into the newly created Commissioner position.  With a paper thin resume, Bettman became the leader of a league that had a rabid following in Canada and patches of support in the United States.  The NHL was trying to expand their brand and take a bigger percentage of the sports pie in America.

 

Bettman's college experience?  Cornell Law.  Professional Experience? Law firm, then the NBA. Yes, as in the National BASKETBALL Association. Gary Bettman's specialty?  Scumbag lawyer.

 

So the very first Commissioner that was supposed to do what's in the best interest of the sport of Hockey had ZERO experience in hockey.  That's okay, maybe he'd pick it up as he went along, people thought.  Well last week Gary Bettman announced that the NHL will not be going to the 2018 Winter Olympics and it is obvious that he's NEVER going to pick up what's in the best interest for the great sport of Hockey. So today, we will tally up Bettman's bungling as he points hockey in the wrong direction for the future...

Bettman's first Stanley Cup featured traditional powerhouse Montreal Canadians, led by Hall of Fame goalie (and 93' Cup MVP) Patrick Roy, beating the Los Angeles Kings, led by Hall of Fame center Wayne Gretzky.  If he's such a crappy Commissioner, you ask, why is he still around nearly 25 years on?  Great question. Because as a tool of the owners, Bettman has consistently put short term profit over long term growth.  In 1993, there were 24 teams in the NHL and sports in America were considered the Big 4.  Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey, in that order. Today it's the Big 3, and the little 5 or 6, with the NHL farther down the ladder of the latter group. 

 

The strategic error of Sun Belt expansion was expediated by Gary Bettman.  At the end of 1993, this is what the NHL looked like:

Adams Division

Boston Bruins

Quebec Nordiques

Montreal Canadiens

Buffalo Sabres

Hartford Whalers

Ottawa Senators

Patrick Division

Pittsburgh Penguins

Washington Capitals

New York Islanders

New Jersey Devils

Philadelphia Flyers

New York Rangers

Norris Division

Chicago Blackhawks

Detroit Red Wings

Toronto Maple Leafs

St. Louis Blues

Minnesota North Stars

Tampa Bay Lightning

Smythe Division

Vancouver Canucks

Calgary Flames

Los Angeles Kings

Winnipeg Jets

Edmonton Oilers

San Jose Sharks

 

The priority for Bettman should have been to expand and have a team in all of Canada's Top 10 markets, basically own the North and then have a few key franchises in large (American) southern markets. Instead, teams left Quebec and Winnipeg and the league attempted to force feed fans teams in Nashville, Atlanta, and Phoenix.  You could say hindsight is 20/20, but many questioned the decisions before they happened. Many owners were blinded by multimillion dollar expansion payoffs. Instead of a second team in Los Angeles, there should have been a second team in Toronto.  Going into 2017, this is what the NHL should have looked like:

 

East

Boston Bruins

Quebec Nordiques

Montreal Canadiens

Buffalo Sabres

Hartford Whalers

Ottawa Senators

Pittsburgh Penguins

Washington Capitals

New York Islanders

New Jersey Devils

Philadelphia Flyers

New York Rangers

Tampa Bay Lightning

Detroit Red Wings

Columbus Blue Jackets

Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto (Expansion Team 2)

West 

Chicago Blackhawks

St. Louis Blues

Minnesota North Stars

Vancouver Canucks

Calgary Flames

Los Angeles Kings

Winnipeg Jets

Edmonton Oilers

San Jose Sharks

Denver (Expansion Team)

Dallas (Expansion Team)

Seattle (Expansion Team)

Salt Lake City (Expansion Team)

Madison/Milwaukee (Expansion Team)

Saskatoon/Regina (Expansion Team)

Las Vegas Golden Knights

  

Instead of owning the hockey base, he eroded it.  Case in point, while Bettman was worried about expanding hockey to Las Vegas, basically putting a fifth hockey team in the American Southwest (hockey in Las Vegas is fine, as long as you take out Phoenix and Anaheim), MLS Cup featured Toronto vs Seattle.  Major League Soccer is making in-roads at the expense of the NHL.  The Toronto Maple Leafs have no players familiar to the average sports fans, whereas Toronto FC have Micheal Bradley and Jozy Altidore.  Could you imagine that name recognition scenario a generation ago?  The NBA, MLS, NFL have all made in-roads in Canada.  Behind the NHL, football (NFL and CFL) is Canada's second favorite sport, but the NHL's numbers are on the downward trend.  In America, hockey's popularity has flattened out over the past 2 decades, despite multiple additional franchises and a national contract with NBC...   

 

Speaking of Networks, back when Bettman took the job, the NHL was on ESPN.  All the time.  The ratings were horrible, but it was their home.  I personally remember watching hockey games in the middle of the night.  Then Bettman moved hockey to the Versus Network (remember Versus?), and the ratings actually went down.  A bunch of corporate rigamarole ensued, and hockey coverage became NHL on NBC in 2011.  Finally a good decision, but in reality NHL on NBC means 90% of the game are on the NBC Sports Network, or MSNBC, or CNBC, or USA.  So the Hockey deal with NBC is about the same as NBC's deal with the English Premier League.  

 

Other leagues started their own networks.  How's the NHL Network doing?  Let's look at that also:

NFL Network  70 million / 60% coverage

MLB Network  70 million / 60% coverage

NBA Network  60  million / 50% coverage (not including Canada...)

Big Ten Network 100 million in US and Canada

SEC Network Owned and operated by ESPN

WWE Network  Launched in 2011, nearly 2 million worldwide, strictly pay-per-view

NHL Network/ NBC Universal America- (one source said 40 million, one source said 80 million)

NHL Network Canada - Closed in 2015

But those figures also reveal a major gap between the NHL and the top team sports in the United States along with their respective networks. NBA TV is in 61 million homes; NFL Network and MLB Network are in 71 million homes. MLB Network in 2012 brought in about five times as much as NHL Network in affiliate fees, and NBA TV brought in about three times as much, sources said.

 

How is the Big Ten Network is bigger than the NHL Network?

Speaking of college sports, you can watch college hockey on the NHL Network also, but only in the regular season. In the past 25 years, Division I Hockey has grown to 60 schools, but as with all things hockey related, most of that growth was at the expense of Division II.  In 1999, Division II Hockey stopped playing a playoff and all teams either went to Division I or Division III.  As one of the feeder systems into the NHL, where can you watch the Frozen Four hockey tournament?  On ESPN U.  

 

The primary feeder system into the NHL is the AHL. The AHL has experienced exponential growth in the past 25 years, but at the expense of the IHL, which was absorbed into the AHL in 2001.  This season the AHL fielded 30 teams.  In 1996 the IHL and AHL fielded about the same number of teams combined.  The ECHL is the next lower league in minor league system and is also experiencing record growth, again at the expense of other leagues.  

 

What the heck does this have to do with Gary Bettman?  

 

The pipeline to get players has been streamlined, but is there real growth? And even if there is growth (which could be argued), is that really by directive of Gary Bettman? Or unrelated to Bettman?  Or despite Bettman?  Unfortunately, the NHL used to be the place where the best hockey players in the world went, but something disturbing is going on in Russia which could ultimately be the NHL's undoing....

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and within 5 years there was in influx of Russian players into the NHL.  In 1998 the Detroit Red Wings were led by these Russian players to the Stanley Cup:

Igor Larionov

Sergei Fedorov

Vyacheslav Kozlov

Viacheslav Fetisov

Vladimir Konstantinov

On the other side of the ocean, the fall of the Soviet Union nearly destroyed Russian Hockey. The (Russian) International Hockey League lasted only 4 years after the Soviet Union broke up.  Out of the ashes of the IHL came the Russian Superleague, which lasted for 10 years in 3 divisions and was then refocused and re-branded as the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008, all the while top Russian talent followed the $$$ to North America.  But in 2013, one of the top players in the NHL, Ilya Kovalchuk, returned for comparable dollars in Russia to play for SKA St. Petersburg.  It was a slight reversal of fortune as the KHL is now in constant expansion and it is beginning to retain its own top talent.  In 2016, the KHL expanded into China, adding HC Kunlun Red Star as its 29th team in 8 different countries.  It's actually a stroke of genius for the KHL, the distance between club Admiral Vladivostok to HC Kunlun Red Star is only 830 miles, about the same plane ride distance as New York City to Chicago, and, if it works out for the KHL, that league just exposed itself to a billion new potential fans.

 

HC Kunlun Red Star is not messing around.  It wants to win right away and hired Mike Keenan, the eighth winningest coach in NHL history, to lead them in their expansion year.*  More importantly for China, they are gearing up for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.  They want a coming out party as large and dynamic as when they hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics.  Now you're scratching your head, "Fred you've really lost me now, how do you connect the dots between Gary Bettman and HC Kunlun Red Star."  Simple. If the NHL doesn't wake up and replace Bettman now, the KHL could be the #1 hockey league in the world by the 2022 games in China. By announcing that the NHL is not participating in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Gary Bettman has capitulated to the short-sightedness of North American owners yet again.  His job is to do what's in the best interest for the game of hockey and NOTHING captures the casual sports fan better than the Olympics.

Don't get me wrong, the numbers still support the NHL as the best hockey league in the world, but the NHL is at a critical juncture here.  Let me throw some random numbers out at you.

 

- Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in the history of the NHL, made $6 million his last year in the NHL, 98-99.

 

- For the 2016-2017 season, the NHL salary cap is $73 million. No player can earn more than $14.6 million. Here are the Top 5 Player salaries in North America:

  1. Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles Kings) $14 million

  2. Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) $13.8 million

    Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks) $13.8 million

  3. Shea Weber (Montreal Canadiens) $12 million

  4. Ryan O'Reilly (Buffalo Sabres) $11 million

- Here are the Top 10 Player salaries in Russia:

1. Ilya Kovalchuk SKA 5.5 million dollars / 330 million Rubles

2. Pavel Datsyuk SKA 4.5 million dollars / 270 million Rubles

3. Vyacheslav Voinov SKA 4.5 million dollars / 270 million Rubles

4. Vasily Koshechkin Metallurg Mg 2.419 million dollars / 145 million Rubles

5. Sergei Mozyakin Metallurg Mg 2.177 million dollars / 130 million Rubles

6. Vladimir Sobotka Vanguard 2 million dollars / 120 million Rubles

7. Vadim Shipachev SKA 2 million dollars / 120 million Rubles

8. Mikhail Varnakov Ak Bars 1.7 million dollars / 102 million Rubles

9. Anton Belov SKA 1.5 million dollars / 90 million Rubles

10. Danis Zaripov Metallurg Mg 1.5 million dollars / 90 million. Rubles

If those first two players look familiar, it's because they left the NHL to return "home."

 

Alex Ovechkin is the best Russian in the NHL today.  He makes a boatload of money and isn't returning to Russia this year, but he's 31 years old.  He came out and said no matter what, he was going to play for Russia in the Olympics in 2018.  The owner of the Washington Capitals, his employer, said that he supported Ovechkin's decision to go to the 2018 Olympics in the middle of the Capital's season.  The Commissioner, in childish fashion, and I'm paraphrasing here, said "oh no you're not," and then stuck out his tongue.  The Commissioner is drawing a line in the sand, practically daring older Russians and Europeans to chose between the NHL and their country.  I believe some financially set players may return to their continent and play out their days in the KHL or even the SHL (Swedish Hockey League).

 

Once that trickle begins, what if the KHL goes on a spending spree and starts to lure players back to their homeland and expansion KHL franchises begin poaching North American players?  Once those dominoes begin to fall and the talent pool becomes a little more depleted, what is going to happen to some of the weaker franchises in the NHL non-traditional hockey markets?  As the NHL adds more teams, but there's less talent in the talent pool, well, that's a recipe for disaster. 

What are the top Sports Leagues in the world?

Football - Clearly the NFL

Baseball - Clearly MLB

Basketball - Clearly the NBA

Soccer - According to me and others: English Premier League

             - According to many others: Spanish La Liga

             - According to Germans: Bundesliga

             - MLS is consistently ranked around the 10th best soccer league in the world.

Hockey - Today the NHL, but it is not a universally strong global brand like the NFL or NBA. What about in 5 years?  I can't stress this enough: 1 billion Chinese are ready to tip the global dynamics of hockey in the KHL's favor... 

 

Gary Bettman begrudgingly sent players to the 1998 Olympics.  The NHL dictated to the Olympic committee that they needed to change their format in order for the league to participate. Bettman always had some conditions to allow players to go to the Olympics and was more of an obstacle, instead of a conduit, for Olympic participation and the process was no different for 2018.  Bettman didn't get the concessions that he demanded, so he took the proverbial puck and went home.  It should be noted that the Olympics were the brainchild of John Ziegler and every 4 years it was like pulling teeth to get the NHL to alter their game schedules.  

Why is Gary Bettman still the Commissioner anyhow?  On February 16, 2005, the NHL became the first major professional sports league in North America to cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute.  Notice I said labor dispute, because technically it wasn't a strike, but a lockout. In 1994 Bettman dug in and the owners locked out the players and in 2012 also.  So by 2013, Bettman was the driving force behind 3 lockouts in 20 years, including a precedent setting one in the history of pro sports.  At some point, especially after the 2004 lockout, there should have been a fresh voice guiding the interests of the league instead of solely the owners.

 

Let's just say you disagree with me, and the players were in the wrong during all three lockouts. Okay, I'll listen to that.  Many rural Canadians said they'd play hockey for free and blame the players for being greedy.  Alright, well then Bettman should have been fired for being asleep at the wheel for the:

John Spano Scandal 

Sanjay Kumar Scandal

John Rigas Scandal

Daryl Katz Scandal (2015)

Daryl Katz Scandal (Today) (Actually, this last one had nothing to do with Bettman, I was just surprised it popped up on my news feed the very day I posted this article.  Exhibit A for NHL owners' character which Gary Bettman has devoted his life to protect.)

 

Here's a another good read when you're done with this article: Bettman's Rogues Gallery

What's that old saying again?  "He that lieth down with the owners shall rise up with fleas."- Poor Richard's Almanac

 

If I lived in New York City, I could have written an article titled: Gary Bettman and Islanders' Ownership through the years. That alone should have been enough incompetence by the league office to justify Bettman's termination. 

One thing Gary Bettman did absolutely right?  The Winter Classic.  The perfect platform for the NHL to reach out to the casual fan....

 

Oh wait, while doing research for this article, I found out that the idea of the Winter Classic was pitched to Gary Bettman in 2004 and he passed. It was only in 2006, when it was re-pitched to a different executive, that the ball started rolling for the Winter Classic that we see today.  Which proves my theory that Gary Bettman wouldn't know a good idea if it bit him on the...

I am not using hyperbole here. At the 100th Anniversary of the NHL, the league has positioned itself for the future with a short-sighted, bean counter who cannot understand the marketing aspect of the Olympics.  This article is not written in the abstract, time is ticking before the Beijing Olympics in 2022 when the potential tipping point for North American Hockey will occur.  If Gary Bettman is still in charge, make sure you re-read the title to this blog post.

 

*p.s.  Mike Keenan is a maniac.  He will be fired before he is the public face for China at the Olympic games in 2022.  I'm calling my shot now.  Okay, maybe not a maniac, but at least the equivalent of the Bora Milutinovic of hockey.

 

p.s. II  Now that the NFL has put 2 teams in Los Angeles for the 2017 season, in your mind, rank these 10 teams in your head in terms of popularity:

Los Angeles Rams / Los Angeles Chargers 

Los Angeles Clippers / Los Angeles Lakers

LA Galaxy / Los Angeles FC (coming in 2018)

LA Dodgers / Anaheim Angels

Anaheim Mighty Ducks / LA Kings

And ask yourself who is going to suffer at the gate in the next 5 years with 10 pro teams in the LA marketplace?

 

 

 

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