To those of you who didn’t move on to cat pictures or the latest meme after reading the title, I thank you for hearing me out.
Yes, I am quite aware that the National Hockey League is headed for its third lockout in the nearly twenty years the league has been under commissioner Gary Bettman’s watch. Yes, I will want the heads of Bettman and all 30 owners presented to me on a stick if the season doesn’t start on time. And if the league does lockout, the league will suffer, I’ll piss and moan like a child, and hockey will ultimately come back because the diehards (like me) don’t care and will be there to keep the league alive. But what’s at risk is the growth the game has experienced coming out of the cancellation of the 2004/05 season.
Sure, the league isn’t seen on ESPN unless it’s playoff time. That’s what happens when your sport isn’t under the umbrella of the World-Wide Leader. Small-market teams continue to struggle because we have this problem in every sport. Guess what? The Rangers, Leafs, Red Wings, Bruins, Blackhawks, Flyers and maybe one or two others have been buoying the league for awhile. Baseball doesn’t fight a system where the heavy hitters keep the little guys upright; why be so vigilant in hockey? It’s not like those teams aren’t going to make a shitload of money even after paying out their shares to the nobodies of the league. There’s also still the issue of player safety but player’s heads are turning to mush in football, too, so at least hockey’s not alone there.
Ratings, though, have never been higher. There’s a pretty good television deal with NBC that makes the league the cornerstone of the new NBC Sports Network with unprecedented coverage and an assurance that every playoff game will be seen under the NBC umbrella while collecting a pretty penny for the league. Would it have been worth it to take next to nothing from the WWL just to get that little extra exposure? I’m pretty sure they still would have treated hockey like the red-headed step child, feeding it scraps under the stairs while telling it how worthless it is. No spit in the eye from NBC, I tells ya!
The game hasn’t been this exciting in twenty years. The league cracked down on the clutch and grab, opened up the game, and got lucky enough to have a couple of trascendent stars come into the league at the same time in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin (they also got lucky with Ovechkin embracing his superstar status, saying and doing awesome things all the time like rapping and showing up for camp out of shape. Wait, maybe not that last part). Bettman smartly copied the NBA blue print of promoting individual stars, pimping out the likes of Evgeni Malkin, the Sedin twins, Patrick Kane (‘MURICA), Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry, Pavel Datsyuk, and so on. Granted, a good chunk of people are still too stupid to pronounce their names correctly but it’s a start.
Most importantly, and I believe that most people don’t realize it or don’t think about it when the opportunity to bitch about Bettman arises, is that Bettman doesn’t run the show. The NHL owners do. Bettman is charged with making them happy and if they think they’re getting shafted by the current collective bargaining agreement (and they are; who thought it was a good idea to give the players 57% of hockey revenue?) then it’s up to Bettman to make them happy.
I understand that Gary Bettman has a responsibility to get the game into a place to succeed and that, to succeed, they need to get this labor dispute solved. But the owners, in their role as puppet master, are the ones pulling all the strings.