Just Go Away, Gary

By Bill Simmons
November 16, 2012

News broke last night that embattled NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suggested a two-week moratorium from lockout negotiations with the NHLPA. The reason? Things had just become too heated. I guess that's what happens when you cancel six weeks of games and Thanksgiving is looming — maybe there's a little more urgency, you say some things you regret, people take those things personally, and suddenly you're threatening each other in monotone Canadian accents. Why don't you go to hell, eh? But canceling another two weeks just so everyone can cool off? Who does this? And you wonder why hockey fans were regarding Bettman's lockout leadership the same way you'd act if you were watching a baby play with a chainsaw.
Oh God … wait, is that on … OH GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This is a guy who recently earned the following e-mail from a Minneapolis reader named Peter Gilbertson: "How does one impeach a sports commissioner? How can a commissioner on the verge of losing two NHL seasons in one decade, with four work stoppages during his tenure, continue to keep his job? He is a failure. For the fans, the players, and the game this needs to be done — Bettman should be impeached."
First of all, how much fun would it be to impeach Gary Bettman? Can't you see him sweating and stammering through the hearings as various politicians rehashed an endless list of mistakes over the years? "So you allowed John Spano to buy the Islanders without any money because … why?" That would be the best courtroom TV since the O.J. trial. But if we voted for sports commissioners (with fans, players and owners each splitting one-third of the overall vote) or put term limits on their tenures (10 years max), then we wouldn't have to ask questions like "How does one impeach a sports commissioner?"
Gary Bettman should have lost his job years and years ago. He kept it for the same reason David Stern plans to hang around for three decades, Bud Selig will still be running baseball when he's 80, and Roger Goodell will probably get a contract extension even after he handled the Saints debacle so badly that he had to bring back his old boss to fix the situation for him. (Yes, we covered these commissioners in this space last month.) But Bettman's supernatural ability to keep ruining hockey is almost unparalleled — after I joked recently for the umpteenth time about Bettman's former boss, David Stern, planting him in the NHL to ruin hockey, a few readers e-mailed me wondering if that could be legitimately true. What other explanation could there be? How could someone be this bad for this long?
The case against Bettman in one sentence: The NHL sacrificed an entire season so they could reimagine their entire salary structure … and only seven years later, that "reimagining" went so poorly that they might have to sacrifice a second season because they need a mulligan.
That's all you need to know. I didn't even need to bring up the league's botched television deals, overexpansion, poorly picked markets, belated acknowledgement of the concussion epidemic, or more incredibly, how they stupidly forgot to limit the length of contracts. This is a commissioner who fought like hell to create a hard cap, and after it finally got approved, was too dense to remember to include a rule that contracts couldn't last longer than five or six years (like what the NBA does). That led to team after team circumventing that cap by giving out guaranteed deals lasting as long as 15 YEARS. Really, didn't see that loophole getting exploited, Gary? Never came up as you were hashing things out?
Imagine your neighbor knocking down his house, then rebuilding it from scratch as his family lived in a hotel. You had to listen to the construction guys hammering, sawing and banging for a solid year. Finally the house goes up, the family moves back in … and seven years later, suddenly they're knocking the house down again. You ask the neighbor what happened and he says, "Yeah, sorry about that — we screwed up when we rebuilt the house, had too many flaws, we needed to do it over again."
Naturally, you say, "Why didn't you figure out all that stuff before you rebuilt the house the first time?"
He says, "Because I'm an idiot, that's why."
And then, there's an awkward silence before he walks away, as you don't know whether he's kidding or not.
That's Gary Bettman.
We should mention that, in a vacuum, he's correct about this particular lockout: The league's financial model (already a mess because we have too many NHL teams, which is 100 percent Bettman's fault, but whatever) can't be sustained with such meager television revenue. Hockey depends on its attendance and the unwavering devotion of its zealous fan base. From a television standpoint, the league will always be handicapped by its lack of marketable stars (the biggest reason it can't command anything close to the NBA's television deal), a glaring problem that I noticed during my first year owning Kings season tickets, when I realized that it didn't really matter who the Kings played from night to night. Sure, you always enjoy seeing the Malkins and Ovechkins, but it's a much different mind-set from, say, LeBron playing the Clippers. Anyone who went to Wednesday's Heat-Clippers game was thinking I'm going to see LeBron!, because they knew he was playing 90 percent of the game. In hockey, you don't say "I'm going to see Ovechkin!," because he might play one-third of the game if you're lucky (and might not make a single meaningful play).
It's the ultimate team sport, and really, that's the best thing about hockey — there's a guaranteed level of entertainment night after night after night that transcends star power. Everyone skates hard, everyone throws their bodies around, everyone plays well together, everyone gives a crap. It's a blue-collar game that happens to be tailor-made for the ADD generation. That's why kids love going to hockey games so much, and that's why my daughter is so bitter right now (fast-forward to the last minute of this podcast). Throw in what hockey means to Canada (where they love hockey like we love football, basketball and baseball combined), some of the NHL's American hotbeds (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philly, Los Angeles, etc.) and the underrated fact that hockey players are the least entitled professional athletes on the planet … and it's almost impossible to screw this up, right?
So how do we end up with a salary system that allows Minnesota to spend $196 million on Ryan Suter and Zach Parise? And that's not to pick on those guys — you could build a decent playoff team around them as long as your goalie didn't stink. Just know that nobody is saying the words, "Suter and Parise are coming to town tonight!" It's just not that kind of league. You go to hockey games to see quality teams, not quality players. There's a fixed level of entertainment. Suter and Parise shouldn't make that much money because hockey players shouldn't make that much money. It has nothing to do with them.
If you think of the cable television model, it makes more sense — channels like AMC, FX and Showtime realized that the quality of their shows matter a thousand times more than the "star power" of the actors on those shows. Yeah, AMC could have spent an extra $15 million per season on Keanu Reeves to play Rick in The Walking Dead, but why would they? People watch that show because they want to see people kill zombies. So they went the other way — cheaper actors, cheaper locations, more money on extras and special effects. Same for Showtime's hit Homeland, which features only one star (Claire Danes, who certainly isn't making Parise/Suter money) surrounded by well-casted actors, including a few good ones whom you'd recognize from other shows (including Mandy Patinkin, a fairly famous name in his own right) and certainly weren't expensive. You might recognize that same blueprint from Breaking Bad,Dexter, Californication, ShamelessGame of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy and about 10 other cable shows. And by the way, did you know ANYONE on Mad Men when that show launched other than Ashton Kutcher's old girlfriend with the weird first name?
On cable television, the showrunner and the writing matter more than anything else. In hockey, the sport and the fans matter more than anything else. It doesn't matter who Minnesota's third-best player is any more or less than it matters who plays Mike on Homeland. Fans are coming, regardless. So why overpay players, jack up ticket prices and price out those fans when you don't have to? Wasn't that what the last lockout was about? Wasn't the league supposed to be regaining control of its broken salary structure? How are we back here seven years later battling the exact same problem?
For that and that alone, Gary Bettman needs to step down. No, we can't impeach him. Yes, we can continue to excoriate him. He's the worst commissioner in sports history, and really, it's going to remain that way unless Roger Goodell extends the NFL's season to 20 games, adds Wednesday- and Friday-night football to the schedule, pays a hitman to murder Jonathan Vilma, and gets outed for having a heated affair with his biographer, Peter King … and even then, I'd probably still give the edge to Bettman.
If you want to talk about moratoriums, Gary, here's a better idea — step down and give us a lifetime moratorium. From you. On to the Week 12 Picks …
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