It is easy to dog pile on the loathing of the often maligned commissioner of the National Hockey League.
While Gary Bettman professes to have always been a big hockey fan, he comes from the NBA. He’s a lawyer. He’s at times self righteous. He’s overly defensive. And he’s not Canadian.
He almost oozes anti-hockey — not by promotion of the league, but in appearance he’s almost the opposite of what one would expect the face of the game to be.
Fish. Barrel. Gun.
Take your best shot.
However, Bettman has been very good for the league.
He has made most of the owners a lot of money through expansion fees and growth of the game. When Bettman took over, the NHL did about $400 million of business annually.
Now it’s a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
He also, for all intents and purposes, broke the union with the last lockout — the NHLPA still hasn’t recovered and is currently a complete mess.
And although two Canadian franchises slipped south on his watch, he has ensured that other Canadian teams wouldn’t follow the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques through initiatives like the Canadian equalization program.
But still, there are moves that he makes that leave me searching for the wisdom.
On Monday, the Phoenix Coyotes officially turned into the Montreal Expos as the NHL’s purchase of the bankrupt hockey club was finally approved.
As much as the NHL denies it, I have a hard time believing that the purchase wasn’t ego driven.
After being spurned twice before while following NHL protocol in the attempt to buy other franchises and move them to Canada, Jim Balsillie tried an end-around on the league, convincing Coyotes owner Larry Moyes to file for bankruptcy, opening the team up for public auction.
It almost worked. But Balsillie, previously approved for NHL ownership, had stepped on the league’s big toe, and no matter how much money Balsillie was willing to throw Moyes’ way, the NHL, Bettman in particular, had decided it was not going to let Balsillie into their exclusive club — now rejecting his approval for ownership.
It very much appeared personal.
After months of back-and-forth in the bankruptcy courts, Judge Redfield Baum finally decried that neither bid — Balsillie putting up $242.5 million, the NHL $140 million — was acceptable due to meeting the demands of the creditors.
Balsillie dropped his bid and the NHL managed to rework its $140 million bid enough to the liking of those involved to be awarded ownership.
They now plan to flip the team to an ownership group committed to keeping the team in Glendale.
What they did do in the process, however, was ostracize an eccentric billionaire from their ownership ranks and keep the corpse of yet another terminal franchise on life support.
It is quite curious how they make their decisions on who to allow into their inner sanctum.
First they welcome in William ‘Boots’ Del Biaggio as a big part of the ownership group to keep the Predators in Nashville, almost exclusively on borrowed dollars, only to end up in prison for eight years due to fraud.
Then there’s also the Koules and the Gang ownership group — Oren Koules and Len Barrie — in Tampa Bay who had to be separated this summer because they couldn’t get along.
The optics are mind boggling.
In the process they managed to embarrass one the NHL’s biggest ambassadors and its biggest name, Wayne Gretzky, on a weekly basis. From trying to divulge his personal finances in court, to making his earnings as head coach of the team very public, when it was clear he was much more than just a coach for the franchise. For all The Great One has done for the game of hockey, suddenly none of his goodwill mattered and in the end he will get almost nothing of his $22 million stake in the team.
And all for what? To keep the Coyotes alive in the desert?
They are a franchise that has never turned a profit since moving to the Phoenix area in 1996 and have lost tens of millions of dollars a year since. It is a community that before the NHL moved there that had little to no history with game, and judging by their attendance numbers would create little emotional damage if they left.
Now I know no league likes to move its teams, especially away form cities that just spent hundreds of millions of dollars of the tax payers’ money to build a stadium. It reeks of instability and makes it tough to argue to other municipalities to build stadiums for the NHL.
But at some point Bettman needs to know when to cut bait.