By Dan Rubin
Gary Bettman is not a popular man.
He knew he wouldn’t be a popular choice when the National Hockey League named him its first commissioner back in 1993. He knew he was going to anger the “old guard” of hockey, one that kept sacred the game while also shutting a number of markets and people out of its virtual monopoly. And he knew that his goal, the goal of the league, was to bring it to the levels that its main competitor, the National Basketball Association, had already achieved.
As a former employee of the NBA, Bettman knew what worked for the league. He knew how to make the game popular and how to market it. He can be credited by riding the crest of popularity brought on by the game’s superstar icons into new and previously-untapped areas. And he can be credited with putting the league into more households than it previously thought possible.
But Bettman’s influence and control stole the league from its previous identity. After being entrusted with bringing the NHL to a new era, he nearly wiped it clear from the map. The league today resembles nothing of its traditional predecessor, and its only link to its past are the names etched on the holiest of holy grails, the Stanley Cup.
In Bettman’s first season, the conference alignment was stripped from its previous divisional names of Adams, Patrick, Norris, and Smythe and replaced with geographical notations. The conferences went from Campbell and Wales to the Western and Eastern. And the playoff format went from being the top four divisional finishers to the best eight teams in the conference.
As the new era of the NHL continued, traditional market teams began to transform. The business of the NHL became high-priced, even in the wake of a lockout in 1994-1995. Arenas went from the small, quaint auditoriums to the high-priced luxury stadiums becoming increasingly popular. The game’s television presence grew, but it became cartoonish as it geared towards an audience outside of its core (remember Fox’s glowing puck anyone?). Even so, as television’s presence grew, the effort to become more marketable also grew. Traditional uniforms became weird-looking sweaters (the Islanders’ fisherman/waves uni and the Lightning’s rain-drops ring bells to me), and the game tried to carve its own area in the lexicon of American life.
Over time, the game maintained popularity among its core group of fans. But that core became alienated throughout the mid to late-1990s, as teams failed to keep up with Bettman’s rapid expansion of the game. Smaller markets found themselves priced out as cities failed to keep up with the transformation of hockey, and the first dominoes fell when the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas over an arena dispute. Within the next two seasons, the Quebec Nordiques, frustrated by a Francophone market and small-city fan base, fell victim to the Americanization of the game, moving to Denver, becoming the Colorado Avalanche. And the Hartford Whalers, sold to an owner pledging to keep them in Connecticut, upped and moved to Raleigh, NC to become the Hurricanes. During that same time, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Vancouver, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Ottawa, and Montreal all opened new arenas. By the time 1997 rolled around, expansion and relocation had all but nationalized the game to Americans and robbed it of its previous identity.
Throughout this, one man stood as the usher – Gary Bettman. Bettman rudely ushered teams out of hockey-crazy markets and into areas of the United States that ponied up money. The largest shot came when the Winnipeg Jets, one of the last founding teams from the World Hockey Association of the 1970s and a team that had at least a decent hockey tradition, moved. The Jets moved south of the Canadian border, stopped in Minnesota to look at the black hole left by their relocation, drove through Denver to see the Avalanche, made a pit stop in LA to see a couple Kings games, and landed in Arizona. The fact that a team from Canada would set up shop in in a city in the middle of the desert bordering Mexico was the ultimate slap in the face to the game as fans had known it.
He finished this off by adding four teams, only one of which was in a “traditional” hockey market and only because it really made no sense to have no pro team in Minnesota. As Canadian cities in the home of hockey looked on, they watched the American states of Tennessee, Ohio, and Georgia gain teams over them. The expansion eventually diluted the talent pool, and the on-ice product turned off what was left of the diehard fan base. Hockey had finally, successfully alienated its game to the point where fair-weather, non-hockey markets succeeded and traditional teams suffered.
As a result, ratings nose-dived. In 1997, the Stanley Cup Finals hit an apex with a 4.0 share, running consistently in the 3.x until the early 2000s. But when the game started to really sag, in the early 2000s, almost 2 million households less than the previous year’s Finals watched New Jersey defeat Anaheim in 2003. It got worse when labor woes surfaced, and the dilution of talent led to teams losing money, which led to teams taking hard-line stances against inflating salaries, which led to the lockout of 2004-2005 and the lost season.
Hockey fans disappeared at this point, and ratings bottomed out in the next two years. When the Carolina defeated the Edmonton Oilers in 2006, it garnered barely 1.8 shares. And the next year, when Anaheim beat an uninspiring Ottawa Senators team, only about 1.5 million people watched, and the league had a 1.2 share. Nobody cared about hockey, not when its best teams where in places nobody cared about hockey. Not when its best players were barely household names.
At some point during the 2007 offseason, though, Gary Bettman got hit by hockey’s tradition bus. He looked at his league and realized that its die-hard fan base wasn’t sitting in Columbus, Ohio or Nashville, Tennessee but in places where kids grew up skating in the same rinks as their fathers and grandfathers. Even though the team was bankrupt, Pittsburgh became the league’s cornerstone with the best player in the game, Sidney Crosby. And instead of copying what other leagues did, he began to usher in the new era of traditional hockey. Outdoor games and throwback jerseys, old time feel and Original Six attitude. The Winter Classic became slightly bigger than the actual Finals because it had the trappings of a “real hockey” game, played in the dead of winter outdoors on a frozen stage, instead of in June opposite 90 degree temperatures. The 2010 Olympic Winter Games served as a bolstering stage as the American game ran into Canada twice, with NHL stars on both sides of the puck. And, lastly, an exciting Playoffs run in the last two years helped bring the game back to mainstream popularity in hockey markets, as traditional markets gained the last three Finals (Detroit-Pittsburgh twice with each winning once, and Original Six charter member Chicago over Philadelphia last season).
But there was always one thing hanging on both the NHL and Bettman’s head. As much as hockey began flourishing once again in Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Montreal, and Boston, it was sinking in the warm climates. Locked in by leases made during the early part of expansion, when the game was heading into the abyss, there was no way to extricate the game from where it once sat.
The Atlanta Thrashers’ short history was marked by poor attendance, poor ownership, and poor hockey. Bad management led to only one postseason appearance, and the team never won a playoff game during their only appearance in 2006-2007. Half of their division were teams with poor fan bases, and the division eventually became the Washington Capitals’ playground from 2007 onward. Unable to sustain the team with dwindling talent and dwindling attendance, Bettman finally stood in a position where he could start righting the biggest of his wrongs from the expansion era of the 90s.
So, on May 31, 2011, Vancouver and Boston got set to play in a Stanley Cup Finals seemingly growing with popularity, buoyed by its highest-rated Conference Finals game in nine years when Boston beat Tampa Bay in a Game 7 instant classic. But to the east, in Manitoba, Gary Bettman stood at a podium and told hockey fans news that they’d been waiting 15 years for.
Hockey was returning to Canada. An ownership group purchased the floundering Thrashers franchise, paving the way for the niche to return to Winnipeg.
As of right now, the Winnipeg franchise has no name, no logo, no jersey. They have an arena, and, even though they’re north of the border, they have a spot in a division called the “Southeast.” But nobody cares. The only thing that mattered is that hockey was finally returning to a fan base that identified more with a hockey team than anything else.
With the domino falling in Atlanta, relocation’s crosshairs are looking directly at Phoenix. The Coyotes (aka – the original Jets) have dwindled to a point where the NHL bought them. League-owned, they coincidentally own the rights to the old Winnipeg logos, history, and uniforms. Since all of this is league property, it is widely believed that the information will be transferred back to the city, and the Jets can resume. It’s a fate that Minnesotans were denied in 2000, when they were forced to embrace a new team known as the Wild, with their history sitting in Dallas, Texas.
The Coyotes themselves may move, even though the city of Glendale pledged $25 million to remain in the city for next season. That city cannot afford to do that every year, and unless something changes, other markets will begin to drool at the playoff-tested Coyotes. The NHL needs a buyer, and ownership groups across the US and Canada are wringing their hands. Groups in Quebec City (now much more Anglophone than it was in the mid-90s), Seattle (which has no winter professional sports team anymore), Kansas City, and even Hartford (cue Brass Bonanza!) are debating making bids. Now that Winnipeg has returned, Hamilton, Ontario becomes a more attractive landing spot (even though its within the 50-mile no-compete radius cast by both Buffalo and Toronto). In five years, the NHL will look much different, and it will have begun a process returning to its geographic roots.
In the coming days, the NHL Playoffs will close out one of its best in memory. Buoyed by classic games from start to finish, two fan bases on opposite ends of the continent will watch a drought 40 years in the making end. For the Canucks, it’s a chance to avenge 1994’s loss to the New York Rangers. For the Bruins, it’s a chance to close out a cathartic postseason. The best-of-seven game series will stand as the final scene of a season that’s been tape-to-tape drama, starting with games in Europe and highlighting a season that was both entertaining and controversial. And with the NBA teetering on the brink of labor ruin, Gary Bettman might finally usher in an era he was asked to create 20 years ago for a game he almost destroyed.