The Most Misunderstood Man In Sports

By Jeff Munn

It never fails.

After the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup clinching win in San Jose, the public address announcer introduced NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for the presentation of the Cup.

The people in San Jose greeted him with boos. Loud, unending boos.

Great welcome for the guy who made certain there’s a hockey team in San Jose, Miami, Winnipeg and Arizona.

Commissioners as a rule are not popular. Bud Selig, as nice a man as you could imagine, was mocked. David Stern drew people’s ire for his arrogance. Roger Goodell is so despised people tried to announce his death on social media. Even a college commissioner, the Pac-12’s Larry Scott is grilled to a crisp by media who blame him for late football kickoffs and the snafu between the Pac-12 Network and Direct TV.

For Rob Manfred and Adam Silver, the honeymoon will eventually end. They’ll each do something that a fan base in a given market will decide is the WORST thing a commissioner has ever done.

In the National Hockey League, there is a totally different, completely acidic hatred towards Gary Bettman league-wide. The difference between he and his contemporaries is simple – much of the venom directed at Bettman is 100% unjustified.

Whether you want to admit it or not, NHL fan, it’s a fact. Gary Bettman saved your league.

You say you hate Bettman because he oversaw two labor stoppages, one of which cancelled an entire season. Imagine what kind of shape the NHL would be in if he hadn’t fought so hard for what those stoppages were about – cost certainty in player payroll.

Sorry hockey fans, you’re not the NFL. You don’t have an unending river of cash from TV Networks. The general population does not have an unquenchable thirst for all things hockey. If you don’t have a salary cap, if you don’t give all 30 teams a level playing field to compete for players, you may have an NHL, but you don’t have any Coyotes, Panthers, Predators, Sabres, Flames, Oilers, Hurricanes or Lightning in it. You may not have the Avalanche, Canucks, Jets or even the Penguins or Sharks either.

For all their power, Goodell, Manfred and Silver have never, and probably will never face the doomsday scenario Bettman stared down not once, but twice.

Did you enjoy the playoffs? Sure you did, you got to see every playoff game on television, between NBC, NBCSN, CNBC and the NHL Network. Yes, that was Bettman, too. Maybe you’d like to go back to SportsChannel, or on tape delay on ESPN3.

Coyote fans, are you still reliving the 2011 run to the Western Conference Finals? There’s Bettman again. There was no good reason for the NHL to continue to battle to keep a team in Phoenix, but Bettman knew you loved your team. He knew you weren’t the reason the franchise had struggled to find stability, so at his direction, the league bought and operated the team until owners, the right owners, could be found.

Bettman’s predecessor thought Columbus was just the guy who discovered America. Bettman put a team there, as well as back in Minnesota. Canadians who thought Bettman was a villain for allowing teams in Quebec and Winnipeg to leave for the US had better be prepared to apologize when he announces next week he’s putting an expansion team in Quebec. That’ll make eight teams in Canada, including Winnipeg. Back in the good old days of the Original Six, there were two.

Bettman has given the NHL a slice of the New Year’s Day spotlight alongside college football with the Winter Classic, and in that same announcement next week, will bring his league even more attention by becoming the first major professional sports league to place a team in Las Vegas.

Tell me when we get to the part where you’re supposed to treat this guy like he’s the worst thing that ever happened to hockey.

Deep down, those fans who booed him in San Jose know Gary Bettman is the BEST thing that ever happened to the NHL. Without him, if there’s still an NHL without Bettman, its best TV deal is probably overnights on Spike TV. The stars at night may be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they’re not on the ice in Dallas.

Here? Gila River Arena would share a place in Valley sports infamy with the Phoenix Trotter’s Park. And Coyote fans are praying that AHL franchise coming to Tucson plays a game or two somewhere in the Valley.

You want to boo Gary Bettman, NHL fans? Suit yourself. At least he gave you a league to do it in.