Bettman's vision of NHL crumbling
So allowing for possible revision down the road, let's go out on a limb and say that it is quite possible that we have just witnessed the beginning of the end for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's dream.
His vision of his league as a popular sport with a solid television package, a sparkling image and franchises all across the United States lies in ruins.
Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of the company behind the Blackberry, is about to purchase the Nashville Predators, and for Bettman's vision, this may turn out to be one step too far down the slippery slope.
Bettman's dream of major network television was already a travesty, having suffered the ultimate embarrassment last Saturday when NBC dropped coverage of a Stanley Cup semifinal playoff game after three periods with the score tied.
There's only one person to blame for that and it's no one at NBC. It's Bettman himself, who authorized the TV deal knowing full well that NBC was contractually bound to a pre-race show for the Preakness.
The network didn't even drop overtime for the race itself, just for the one-hour pre-race hype and some taped features.
Would it have been too much to expect Bettman to exhibit enough foresight to start the Anaheim-Detroit game at 1 p.m. rather than 2 p.m. and thereby minimize the risk of such an occurrence?
Apparently it would. Gary is big on legal matters but not so good on understanding hockey. Oh, they can have more than five minutes of overtime in the playoffs? Who knew?
Bettman had already embarrassed himself and his league with his overall network "strategy," which puts most of the games on Versus, a nondescript network that hardly anyone seems to get, despite the network's assurances to the contrary.
He sold the NBC playoff rights for zero dollars, then let NBC dictate the schedule. Bettman professes his concern for Canadian fans, but in this move alone, he showed the disdain that more accurately represents his feeling. The concerns of Hockey Night in Canada, a national tradition, were shoved aside as he groveled to NBC.
This was a move that not only infuriated Canadians from coast to coast, but did severe damage to the hospitality segment of many urban economies. A playoff game on television is a huge draw for many Canadian bars and taverns. But even Canadians, despite their legendary thirst, aren't going to sit in a bar to watch a hockey game on one of the first sunny spring afternoons after a long winter. Well, some of them are, but nowhere near as many as would have been the case had the games been played at night.
Thanks to Bettman's network-TV fiasco, combined with his astonishingly stupid decision to kill the 2004-05 season to please a few wealthy owners who wanted to become wealthier, hockey is now viewed as a niche sport in the United States.
In 1994, after the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, there existed another universal view of the game, a view that was diametrically opposite to the one held today. At that time, the NHL was seen as the league poised for stardom.
So naturally, Bettman did what he does best. He shut the league down. It was only half a year that time, but it brought the league's momentum to a screeching halt.
And it has gone downhill ever since.
As for his expansion program, it too has been a spectacular failure. Now that Balsillie has entered the picture, the tide might be about to turn and leave Bettman's vision as flotsam.
Last year, Balsillie tried to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now he appears almost certain to get the Nashville Creditors. In neither case has he expressed any particular interest in keeping the team where it is.
He would love to have a team in his home town, the major metropolis of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
The legal requirements for such an eventuality are so boring that only Bettman could love to recite them, but this much is certain. A move to Waterloo is possible.
And if the NHL is ready to move an American franchise back to Canada, then you should be able to figure out just how bad the league's American position is.
For decades, American owners have been doing everything the can to minimize Canadian involvement, not because they have anything against the country, but simply because their every action is financially motivated.
This is a league that does not share its attendance revenues. So a Canadian team might draw well at home, but an American owner couldn't care less. He's not going to see any of it. What he does know is that Canadian teams are traditionaly the NHL's worst road draws. An owner in a major American city doesn't want to try to sell tickets for games against teams from places like Winnipeg, Quebec and Waterloo — or even Calgary and Edmonton for that matter. He wants visits from New York, Boston, Los Angeles and so on.
Now, once Balsillie purchases the Predators, the battle will be on. He will want to move that team out of Nashville and into Canada. Perhaps, down the road, some other entrepeneur will try to follow a similar pattern with the Atlanta Thrashers or the Florida Panthers, and some of the other cities that Bettman brought into the NHL.
And while Canada is a nice place, it's not the place to be if you're trying to establish your sports league as a major league in the United States.
This is what Bettman has wrought.