With the labour agreement in place until at least 2020, the question is whether he can grown the NHL to 32 teams from 30? Slotting eight teams in four conferences has long been the end game, but expansion has been delayed by a persistent need to extinguish brushfires around teams with financial issues.
Quinn believes putting a second team in the Greater Toronto Area area is “a logical step.” He also believes that expanding to Europe makes sense.
McNall has a far less optimistic view of the future. He does not see an onward and upward trajectory, but says the fault is with his original vision, not Bettman’s. According to McNall, his rush to bring in additional Sunbelt teams (Florida and Anaheim were added the day before Bettman was hired) was probably the wrong thing to do. McNall essentially recruited both new partners – Disney’s Michael Eisner in Anaheim and Blockbuster Video’s Wayne Huizenga in Florida – through personal relationships. At the time, the moves were universally applauded because it brought owners with real dollars in their pockets into the fold.
“I had lunch with Wayne [Gretzky] the other day and we were talking about it a little bit. Only a handful of those expansion teams are successful. Most of them are not,” McNall said. "So apparently, for any number of reasons, hockey doesn’t seem to want to transfer over into these non-indigenous areas.”
McNall also raised another issue relating to marketing – how hockey players are harder to sell to a larger national U.S. audience because they generally don’t want to stand out. He is not sure how that ethic can change, either.
“In basketball or football, you have a lot of characters in those sports,” McNall said. “You have a lot of personalities. Hockey doesn’t have a lot of personalities. They’re pretty boring guys. It’s hard to get them to be media darlings, like the NBA guys, which helps to drive sales and interest in smaller markets. Can you imagine a basketball player saying, ‘no, I don’t want to shoot the ball?’ It would never happen. In hockey, everybody’s a team guy.”
Quinn believes the product on the ice is holding the league back too. Despite improvement in the past five years, it still has a long way to go, with European soccer-style trapping a plague.
“I put that responsibility on Gary and the players,” he said. “They both need to collaborate on that and say, ‘Okay, how do we make this game truly exciting so it can keep with the other American sports?’ If I had to give Gary a mark below ‘A’ on anything, it might be that. Not that he hasn’t tried, but both groups have to do a lot more there.”
Meantime, while the NHL has taken steps to improve its health and safety record, there’s work to be done.
“They still have to come to grips with violence in the game,” Quinn said. “There’s a strong faction that wants to keep fighting. There’s a strong faction that doesn’t. The whole issue has to be wrestled with. The issue of concussions has to be wrestled with.”
Always an outsider
In assessing Bettman’s legacy, people struggle to separate the personal from the professional. Some will always consider him to be an outsider, never having been steeped in hockey culture. If Bettman were more Clinton-esque in stature and had that same charming, disarming manner in public, opposed to appearing stiff and guarded, maybe the perception of him would be different.
“There’s no question about that – which is again unfair,” Quinn said.
“I can tell you, he’s a very good communicator. He goes out of his way to communicate. The impression that’s created of him is this little guy who is holding onto power. That is completely not true. He shares information extremely well with his partners. He doesn’t exclude people. I found him to be a real pleasure to work with – and totally different than the stereotype that people often use with him.”
Quinn concluded: “On Gary overall, if you looked at every category and separated yourself from the personalities and said, ‘has this business grown over his tenure?’ There’s no question it has. Has he been able to solve a problem that hockey couldn’t for 40 or 50 years before him, which was to have national television exposure in the United States? Yes. Do they have a formula that’s fair for team owners and players? I think finally, yeah they do. Now getting there? A lot of eggs were broken. But I don’t know how you do it without it.”