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A critique of NHL Hour with Gary Bettman

April 11, 2011

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

Like many good hockey fans, I dutifully listen to the NHL Hour each week. I download the podcast version, as I don’t have XM Radio. It’s typically available several days after the initial airing and I can’t call in, of course, so it’s a little different. But I listen, every week, to the whole hour, goofy 70s music intermissions and all.

First, I would like to commend Commissioner Bettman and the NHL for providing such unparalleled access. Not every sports league does something like this. Also, I would like to applaud whomever filters the phone calls. An infinite number of calls were taken on the Phoenix to Winnipeg situation and on the Islanders-Chris Botta situation, week in and week out. And finally, seeing as he’s the Commissioner, it’s a given that he can call upon whomever he wants, whether it’s player or GM, in the league, to join the show for an interview. Nevertheless, he pulls out all the stops and brings in the top guns.

But the show does have more than a few significant flaws. These flaws are troublesome not so much because they exist (Bettman is human, fallible and allowed moments of insecurity), but because of how much they detract from the momentum of the show and actually drain the hour at moments. All the flaws are centered around a certain defensiveness Bettman exudes. This is more than likely a byproduct of the constant attacks he suffers. But, he should take a stand, embrace his decisions as commissioner and not feel compelled to constantly bring them up.

Exhibit A: “It is what the fans want.”

Whenever a question is raised regarding fighting, rule-changes related to hits, 3-point games and the shootout, time and again, Bettman’s default response is “this is what the majority of fans want.” Over and over. I don’t know what NHL focus groups look like. I don’t know where the opinion polls are. I don’t know. It pins perfectly valid critiques by some fans and some members of the media on other fans. Instead of accepting the fact the league made a rational decision to have the rules they have, to take the stance they’ve taken, instead, Bettman turns it back to fans. The NHL and it’s entertainment. It is a product. This is clear and to known to all. However, in terms of “delivering that product” it’s just as much the enterprise as it is the consumer who must handle the status quo and accept it as the land of the law. If anything, it creates a certain antagonism that I don’t think is productive. Also, instead of provided a reasoned explanation for why rules surrounding fighting and hitting and the instigator penalty are what they are, it comes back to the fans. Hockey is more complex than the fans. Decisions are made without consideration for fans frequently. Call it what it is.

Exhibit B: “This has nothing to do with it being a non-traditional hockey market. There is no such thing as a non-traditional hockey market. I hate that term.”

When there’s issues of ticket sales or the Coyotes debacle, this is Bettman’s fall-back. He is responsible in large part for the Sunbelt expansion in the US. Often it seems he wants to wash his hands clean of that. The focus in discussions about leaving Quebec and Winnipeg revolve around the departure and not the arrival into the new market. And while the former example was a success (Denver), we know the latter is not. Bettman makes a point of asking every GM he talks to, and this year in particular, with people from Tampa, Nashville and San Jose, about what it’s like being a team in a “warm, non-hockey climate.” This is his euphemism. Call it a non-traditional market. Call it what it is.

Exhibit C: “People always think I have a vested interest in who wins or these TV deals and stuff. The truth is, and I say this time and again, but I don’t.”

This one is odd, because, often it’s not a caller that brings it up. Bettman himself raises this issue, which, I think all will agree, runs afoul of conspiracy theory territory. Apparently Bettman thinks people believe he would like to fix playoff series, that he would favor certain teams win and certain teams lose, for one reason or another (perhaps to prove a point about a certain franchise?). That’s the lunatic fringe. Why he plays into that, I don’t know. He has wasted needless minutes this season bringing this lunatic conspiracy up. He shouldn’t indulge it, shouldn’t give it any attention. And finally, while I don’t buy into the conspiracy theories, surely Bettman has to acknowledge that from a US TV rights perspective, a Stanley Cup final between Chicago and Philadelphia pulls in far more viewers than one between Tampa Bay and Calgary. This is just a fact. Any US network considering taking the NHL implicitly understands that this is duel-nation sport, and that CBC, TSN, RDS, Rogers Sports Net and so forth to the North will be reaping the profits of that viewership, whereas it will be less here. That’s just a fact. Once more, in my heart of hearts I don’t think Bettman is rooting for playoff match-ups of heavyweight American markets. I really don’t. But on some level the admission that such matches are more lucrative and more tantalizing to advertise to upcoming TV suitors should be put out in the open. The Winter Classic/Heritage Classic typifies this issue and also underscores a bias towards big-market teams. Call it what it is.

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