I suppose it's easy for folks to blame Bettman for everything in hockey that's wrong and no doubt he's made some mistakes, but he's also done a lot of good things while others are just beyond his control and part of the changing times in sports that he get's blamed for because he's the commissioner at this time. His personality is not going to win him style points with anyone but John Ziegler and Gil Stein make Bettman seem flamboyant by comparison.
Still, anything happens and the usual folks will blame Bettman and demand he be fired. Even mentioning his name for some bring that response.
Bettman's biggest mistake was settling for no cap during the first work stoppage in
1994-95 which reportedly former NHLPA Bob Goodenow was willing to give at that time, which basketball and football had to incorporate later on. Maybe the owners demanded the league start the season but it was his job to convince them what was going to happen and apparently he could not do this.
This set the stage for many corporate owners where a hockey team is just one small element to their corporation where spending and losing whatever money it took to win made sense. This practice filtered to the entire player market and led the sport into a second lockout because not all teams are run by billion dollar corporations.
Unfortunately things regressed to a point only Toronto and a few other clubs in new facilities with lower payrolls were making any money like Minnesota.
Many of those owners from the 94-95 lockout were no longer around by summer 2004.
This set the stage for a second lockout and losing an entire year of hockey because Bob Goodenow was willing to lock out the sport forever then give up his free market system. Eventually too many sources came forward and even the players came to the realization that this business was making money but so much was going to the players it was impossible for most owners to even break even. Players paid a huge price in forfeiting twenty four percent of their contracts and losing a year's pay.
Goodenow was replaced and a deal was put in place where revenue made by the league is a major factor in determining the cap. Already we are seeing payroll's heading back or above pre-lockout levels and some of the same pre-lockout problems are again surfacing. The owners in many places has been to raise ticket prices which raises revenue which raises the cap.
Hard to blame Bettman entirely for this. He's not the final say and the owners play a big part of Bettman's decisions. Again some owners are leaving while new ones are waiting to spend money and purchase teams.
Financially, teams and the league will keep finding ways to increase revenue with things like Wang's Islanders-TV and the cap will continue to grow. Senators have PPV games. Star players will receive top dollar and front-loaded contracts which is something new today and second tier players will pay for it with lower contracts.
And yes, teams idea's like forum-fitting uniforms will continue to be introduced so fans can pay for them.
Sure he can be blamed for the John Spano fiasco, because the system to check owners finances and credibility failed, but Howard Milstein is a billionaire. Neither Bettman nor the board of governors (fancy term for other owners) know what people's intentions are. In Jim Basille's case we found out quickly but he was honest enough to tell people.
You get so much political spin from folks friendly to Espn who need them for their sports business it's hard to say if this is failing because Versus has had the television rights for only two seasons. What we do know is Versus offered more money than Espn and Bettman was tired of our sport being 10th or lower on Espn so he took the league's television rights elsewhere to a network that he hoped would treat them like TSN OR Sportsnet treat hockey in Canada. To that degree it's been a failure to this point with limited programming, limited exposure and a lot of spin-doctors in the media ripping Versus but their motivation has to be questioned. Ratings are on par with a limited network and down from Espn levels. NBC has done the same shoddy job, Fox, ABC did over a decade and the numbers are poor regardless who plays and that's how it will stay and the talk is beginning that Espn may re-enter the picture from some media sources.
I cannot blame Bettman here. He wanted his sport to be the number one attraction somewhere and was paid more than Espn wanted to pay who was doing a terrible job with hockey. He also wanted them on a network and NBC was interested. Maybe he should have made sure Versus and another station with more access was involved like TSN has with basketball but he cannot be blamed for local carriers like Time Warner and Cablevision refusing to switch Versus to standard programming so more fans can watch games. Of course Cablevision and Versus-based Comcast are also in competition.
The game on the ice:
This is where Bettman's done his best work in my perspective under very tough circumstances.
Folks want to blame Bettman for the trap but it's not his fault coaching/training techniques, body chemistry and equipment advances outgrew the rinks teams played hockey games on. Buildings cannot be altered to expand ice surfaces and take away prime seating. These equipment advances also brought about a lot more concussion problems. New glass was brought in, changed again, tougher penalty regulations were introduced to protect players. Even a change to protect the fans was brought in putting netting around all the back of the goals after a tragedy. Bettman brought in a competition committee to examine the way the game was played and made the tough decisions to make two-line passes legal, changed icing rules, brought in four on four overtime, touch up offsides, delay of game rules and of course shootouts with the dramatic changes in obstruction rules that has most complaining. To say nothing of changes to drug testing rule and the substance abuse programs the league has put in place.
Cosmetic changes were brought in under this commissioner's watch that reflect his NBA background taking out traditional division names long ago. Going back to pre-70's dark jersey at home has not been received well.
Many fans been critical, many have praised those changes and still it's tough to score goals and more things are considered. The game is still far from perfect but this commissioner seems open to doing what it takes, but again he's not alone or be credited/criticized for everything.
Owners decided to keep an eight game divisional schedule this season. Owners
decided that some teams the fans may not see for three seasons in their buildings, any idea that Gary Bettman is the first and last word on most decisions would not be fair, even if he is the face of this league. In essence he is the owners representative while the NHLPA represents the players.
In my perspective, Gary Bettman is not the problem with hockey nor should he be replaced any time soon. He's introduced many gound breaking ideas for hockey without changing the game entirely for traditional fans. I'm not confident he's going to survive the expiring CBA in a few years but many things that happened under his watch were beyond his control.