One suspects that flowers and candy are out, all packages no doubt to be scanned as they arrive at the NHL Head Office in New York Tuesday. February 1st is the 12th anniversary of the reign of Gary Bettman over the empire that once was the NHL. And while the NHL execs hang around the office to eat some cake and maybe answer a phone, others are taking a look back at how the league has fared in the last twelve years.
Ah those heady days when Gary took over and the NHL was a bona fide major league sport, touted as one of the Big Four, Hot where basketball had become oh so cold. Gary who joined the league from the NBA oversaw an expansion to points south and west, an increase to thirty teams and for a while there, some actual media interest on the Big Networks. Even Fox, the hotshot new network on the block, took the time to test drive the sport, bringing the flashing puck to the game, before abandoning hockey and tossing the timeslot over the Nascar aficionados. But for a bit of time there, Hockey was the coolest game, the tickets were selling, the branding was hot and the players for the most part willing to play for the millions shoveled their way by spendthrift owners, unaware of the damage they were committing to their own industry.
But twelve years is a long time to rule an empire, players come and players go, many of the European arrivals had less interest in the almost religious aura of the game and just wanted the big money, if they could earn it without having to play in a brutal playoff tournament so much the better. The North American lads developed a greed gene as well, jumping from small team to the lure of the big cities and their huge contracts, endorsement deals and again early summers.
Along the way though Gary seemed to lose control of his employers, they began to outbid each other for players offering ridiculous sums of money for stars and slugs alike. The bell curve of financial expenditures rose fast under Gary's watch, leading to the state we are in at the moment. Unable to control his owners, Gary hopes to control the players. For the moment though the players are not coming onside to the plan. And so we sit and without games to watch, instead we have time to do some reading.
The reviews of Gary's years in the the retrospective pieces are not kind. A top five list of blunders here or a season killed due to stubborn commissioner story there, it all floods in as the last gasps of what would have been the 2004-05 season play out. Of course his reputation took a bit of a hit just after Christmas, with some blistering reviews from Business week and Sporting News. There are the calls for his head from the media and not to be outdone, Bettman is being haunted from the grave, hockey fan Archie Bennitz blasting both Bettman and Goodenow from his obituary, not exactly the way one would want to celebrate the 12th anniversary now is it!
Calls for full public disclosure are beginning to surface, hockey fans wondering just who really does have hockey's best interests at heart. The New York Post calling for a public vote on an NHLPA proposal. Allowing all owners to publicly stand up and say why they are against the plan. As any good emperor might realize, letting democracy rule is the beginning of the end to the empire!
Helpful players remind the owners that Gary promised them a salary cap and at the moment they are nowhere near that idea. Suggesting that Gary is on thin ice with his employer due to his inability to deliver the Holy Grail of a cap! The suspense continues with each successive meeting that takes place without him or Bob Goodenow being present. They apparently to the point of being more of a distraction to events, than a force for postitive development.
We now wait for the emperor to give us the sign, when the season will end or God forbid it now begin. And while the hockey peasantry await the announcement we notice the other trends.
There are almost half (if not over half) of the players from NHL rosters with signed contracts in Europe, casting their votes with their feet. A testimony that Hockey is an ever changing business now, affiliations and loyalties last no longer than a contract and a dollar value.
But perhaps there is a more appropriate sign that all is not well; Jean Beliveau, Le Gros Bill, has decided to put his many valued items up for auction. While no doubt a personal decision by he and his family, the symbolism of it all though speaks volumes. Memories of seasons gone by are now up for auction, Monsieur Beliveau will probably reap a healthy reward for his treasures and deservedly so, but one hopes that somehow they stay close to hockey. But the sale tells a story for hockey fans on of a longing for a simpler time, one when the games were played on the ice and not in boardrooms and on telephones.