Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Bettman Backlash?

Before the NHL’s year long sabbatical a year ago, Gary Bettman’s cache in Canada was rather limited, having overseen the relocation of both Quebec and Winnipeg to American markets, the perception of the Commissioner as being somewhat anti-Canadian in his thoughts on Canadian franchises reached a fever pitch.

It was not uncommon that in his rare forays into the frozen wastelands of the NHL he would be greeted by a sound universally known as and indication of distrust. That wasn’t Lou he was hearing from Edmonton to Ottawa.

Perhaps an unfair perception by the cradle of the puck, but none the less there was a definitive distrust of anything he said or did when it came to the fate of Canadian franchises.

Things began to turn a bit for Bettman when the Ottawa franchise suffered it’s meltdown during the Bryden years, rather than smooth the way for the moving vans to hit the 401, Bettman counseled patience and eventually the Ottawa faithful were rewarded with Eugene Melnyk’s rather secure wallet.

The unofficial Canadian franchise in Buffalo likewise dodged the relocation bullet, as the NHL propped up the struggling Sabres in their Buffalo home while the sought out more secure and interested owners (not to mention ones without legal problems).

The lock out year brought the fans in the north fully on the side of the Commissioner as cost certainty, wage caps and a need to knuckle down financially was sold as the best way to keep a strong Canadian presence in the NHL.

With the lock out year out of the way, even Edmonton, once considered the next possible team to bolt from Canada, had stabilized over the last few years, last year returning to that place of past glory a Stanley Cup final.

All in all, the impression was that while Quebec and Winnipeg were gone, the remaining teams were strong in the new NHL, and who knew, with a set wage scale, costs under control and a few struggling franchises in the sunbelt there just may be life in the Canadian hinter land once again.

But, for Mr. Bettman, all that good karma has run out. The mess that has become the Pittsburgh Penguins sale has brought the Canadian hockey fan to the boiling point once again. The unspoken belief is that the NHL purposely has put too many roadblocks in the way of moving the Pens north of the 49th. Under the principle of wanting to keep the team in Pittsburgh, the idea of moving them to Hamilton, Kitchener, Winnipeg or Quebec City is considered a long shot at best. This despite the simple fact that this Pens team would be a sell out in any Canadian city it chose to make home.

What annoys Canadians besides the obvious slight at their hockey genealogy, is the fact the list of possible suitors for the Pens isn’t exactly an A list of hockey hotbeds. While Houston might be workable spot, the prospect of Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, the perennial Portland or the suddenly surprising Seattle leave many hockey fans in the north just a little bemused.

Stephen Brunt has examined the Bettman agenda for the Globe and Mail; it’s a fascinating look at how he’s shaping the league, still sticking to a foot print in markets that aren’t showing a particular affinity for the game.

It won’t be something that Canadian hockey fans will enjoy reading, but at least they’ll have a better understanding as to why the NHL still insists on fanciful dreams of sunbelt hockey thriving, while the frozen home of the game offers up it’s unrequited love for the sport.

Brunt: Bettman's vision for NHL unwavering
Globe and Mail Update
December 22, 2006

Not so long ago, the commissioner of the National Hockey League spoke to a crowd in Edmonton and was rewarded with a standing ovation.

That was during the great hockey labour war, when Gary Bettman managed to convince many Canadians that the battle was being fought by ownership on behalf of small-market clubs on this side of the border.

It was a crock, but it was an appealing argument in a place where anti-player and anti-union feelings already ran high.

And after Bettman won his glorious victory, it was appealing, also, to extrapolate just a little bit.
Maybe in the new, cost-controlled NHL, there was a place for more Canadian teams. Maybe the retreat from the free market when it came to player salaries would allow more modest, but actual hockey-loving burghs back into the club.

The events this week surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins are mighty murky, with prospective owner Jim Balsillie suggesting he was side-swiped by the NHL at the last minute, and the league, through deputy commissioner Bill Daly, suggesting that if Balsillie says any such thing, he's not telling the truth.

We may never know whether Balsillie was seriously contemplating moving the Penguins north, or whether the NHL, terrified of that possibility, did its best to stop him by attaching a long list of conditions to the sale.

Still, there's one crystal-clear truth that emerged amid all the finger pointing: The 40-year-old dream that spurred the NHL's great 1960s expansion, and more explicitly, the conceit that has been at the heart of Bettman's reign as commissioner, is still very much alive — at least in the heads of those who run the league.

They believe, still, that professional hockey can become a significant factor in the American sports environment. They believe, still, that there is serious money to be made from U.S. network television. They believe, still, that hockey can be dropped into non-traditional markets, expanding the sport's "footprint," seeding new shinny hotbeds wherever it goes.

Asked this week about the league's policy on relocating franchises, Daly said there is nothing to prevent a team from moving to Canada. But in the criteria he laid out by which the governors would accept or reject a move, the good of the league — in terms of expanding the market base and satisfying television networks — was clearly of greater importance than increasing the NHL's presence in places packed with rabid fans where it has already fully exploited the broadcast possibilities.

The league's position is that it's now impossible for an owner to pull an Al Davis, to simply change cities in the middle of the night and then dare the commissioner to stop him. Bylaws have been amended in the light of an appeal-court ruling that may well have closed that legal loophole.

So if a team can't go where the governors don't want it to go, and if they're still buying in to the notion of the NHL as a significant, continental brand, then hello Kansas City, hello Las Vegas, hello Houston and hello Oklahoma City — and forget about Winnipeg, Quebec City or Kitchener-Waterloo.

There are new, or relatively new, arenas available in all of those U.S. cities now, and according to the league, there are several would-be owners for the Penguins, even if Balsillie is gone for good. Barring a last-minute cave-in by the politicians in Pennsylvania (which isn't out of the question), you'll soon enough be hearing how Sidney Crosby will sell the sport to the American heathens from a new home.

You say this feels familiar, that you've been here before, that you vaguely remember a fellow named Gretzky in Los Angeles, the Stanley Cup being contested in tropical climes, glowing pucks, hockey-playing robots and the U.S. breakthrough being at hand.

And now, there are all of those half-empty buildings, television coverage on a network (Versus) a whole lot of people can't seem to locate, a network deal for no money down and a free fall from being almost the fourth major sport to something approaching niche, cult, hardcore-only status.
(Question: When did hockey last appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, that arbiter of mainstream American sports taste? Answer: Aside from a Steve Yzerman commemorative edition produced for the Detroit market, it was Oct. 14, 2002.)

But Bettman is undeterred. He is still trying to accomplish the mission he was hired to perform. He can't make a hard left turn now, or ever.

When might the NHL add teams in Canada? When the business implodes, or when the vision changes — which might amount to the same thing.

Either would require, or inspire, a change at the top.

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