Timing wrong for induction
With potential labour strife on the horizon, Hall voters should have deferred on inducting Bettman
Bobby Orr believes another National Hockey League lockout is coming in 2020.
And, if Orr is correct, Monday’s enshrinement of Gary Bettman in the builders category of the Hockey Hall of Fame will seem more ludicrous then than it does right now.
The timing for Bettman and the Hall just doesn’t seem right. Maybe some day it might be. You can make a strong case for Bettman as a Hall of Famer and you can make almost as strong a case that the 18-member voting committee of the Hall should have delayed its voting on Bettman, waiting until his career was over or close to ending.
It’s 25 years for Bettman as commissioner of the NHL and he remains in his prime. He’s a 50-goal scorer as a commissioner, the most significant financial figure in the history of hockey, but he’s still scoring big-time. He’s still a major player in the game. And he still belies the title of his job. He is called commissioner, but really he has never been that. He is the CEO of the NHL, working with the owners and for the owners. He doesn’t oversee the game as much as he oversees the business of the game. And he doesn’t often act for players or fans, always leaning in the direction of ownership. And that’s where and why the Hall of Fame stuff gets complicated.
Bettman has been a brilliant leader for the NHL. There is no denying that. The league was relatively small in major league sporting business when he left the NBA to become the NHL’s first commissioner. The growth of the NHL under his leadership has been gigantic: In terms of revenue, the business has grown almost 10-fold. Franchise values have gone through the roof. Expansion fees border on the impossible, Vegas paying US$500 million for its team, Seattle said to be paying US$650 million for its expansion franchise. That in a league in which the Florida Panthers or Arizona Coyotes could be sold for maybe half that price. Player salaries, except for star players hampered by the salary cap, have grown enormously.
On the ice, on television and in development and in digital growth, hockey has never been bigger or better in America, where it forever needs to be bigger and better. So much of that goes back to Bettman, that’s the Hall of Fame argument. That’s impossible to argue against. That’s the teeter-totter of his time in office: He has been the yeah-but commissioner. For all that he has done for the business needs to be balanced against all he hasn’t done for fans and the game.
So, Bettman is an all-time great builder, a giant really, especially considering some of the weak choices in that category over the years from Harold Ballard to Jeremy Jacobs, but that’s only part of his story.
He has, as commissioner, overseen three lockouts in the NHL. One for a full season. Two for near half seasons. That remains disgraceful. And Orr thinks a fourth one is coming.
Yes, some will argue that each time the NHL shut down, it came back stronger a league. But that’s more a tribute to a loyal and rabid fan base than it is to anything Bettman and company have done to rebrand the league.
If a fourth lockout is coming — and who knows whether it is or how long it might last — ask yourself this: Should a commissioner who oversees four lockouts in his career, in any sport, in any league, be considered for a Hall of Fame?
That’s the problem with today. We don’t know if a lockout is coming. We don’t how the Bettman story ends in the NHL. Caution should have been on the minds of the voters. There are just as many reasons to keep him out as there are to let him in. So why not wait until you know how the story ends?
Can you imagine taking your son or daughter to the Hall of Fame in 2020, seeing the Bettman display, and explaining to your kids that he’s the reason the NHL isn’t playing right now.
And if you want, you can explain that he was the reason, or the leader — via his owners — that there was no NHL participation in PyeongChang for the Olympics last February. Bettman was the first to take the NHL to the Olympics and the first to shut them down.
He was party to the greatest Olympic hockey tournaments ever played and party also to just about the worst one ever played.
Business on one side on the scale, his absolute strength. The game on the other side of the scale, letting fans down with lockouts, letting them down with Olympics, letting them down with the forever growing cost of attending games.
Being the central figure in three lockouts should be warning enough to wonder about Hall of Fame inclusion. But if there’s a fourth lockout, that tips the scale heavily against Bettman. By then, it won’t matter to most of us that he has his place in the Hall of Fame. We’ll just want hockey, like we always do. firstname.lastname@example.org
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.