Among all the fires Gary Bettman has had to put out during his nearly 30 years in charge of the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks sex-abuse scandal had the highest risk of spread.
It had already leaked into several other franchises, after many of the executives and coaches involved had moved on. Through Chicago president Stan Bowman’s involvement in Team USA, it could infect the international set-up. And then there was the threat that the NHL’s reputation in the wider American consciousness would go from “toothless Canadians beat each other up” to “heartless executives clumsily cover up crime”.
So credit where it’s due – in the aftermath of this disaster, Bettman did just about everything right.
Upon release of an independent report and its conclusion that the system failed, Bettman hit Chicago with a US$2-million penalty.
The amount of the fine wasn’t important. It hurts the club as much as a speeding ticket hurts you. But the fact that Bettman did not dither in issuing it was critical. Something was being done.
As the man in charge of the operation, Bowman resigned nearly immediately. People don’t just up and quit a job like that unless assurances have been made. Who do you think might have helped stage-manage that?
Bettman let those moves percolate for a couple of days. A few raged because he didn’t have everyone involved renditioned to his office immediately, but this gave the league a moment to see how things were shaking out.
At that point, the anger began to wax. Why was Joel Quenneville allowed to coach a Florida Panthers’ game before his visit to New York HQ? Why wouldn’t he take questions after the game? When exactly were heads going to roll?
That general frustration was at risk of becoming incandescent after the man at the centre of this thing, Kyle Beach, gave a disturbing and highly sympatico interview to TSN’s Rick Westhead. Scandals don’t leap into the mainstream until they have a face. Now this one did.
In that moment, you can imagine about a half-dozen ways Bettman could have got this wrong. He could have fired Quenneville summarily, prompting a backlash to the backlash. He could have held a self-righteous news conference exculpating himself, causing a “the gentleman doth protest too much” vibe to seep in. He could have delayed further, frozen by the pace at which events were moving.
Instead, Bettman Don Corleone’d the situation by convincing Quenneville to fire himself.
How does one get the best coach in hockey to punch his own ticket after an hour-long fireside chat? I have no clue, but I wish I had that super power.
Quenneville’s exit served two purposes. First, it tamped the fires down to a dull burn. The main focus of social media’s anger had been removed.
Second, it reinforced Bettman’s authority. His statement announcing Quenneville’s resignation had a subtle switch in pronouns near its end. “We” had decided a bunch of things, but “should [Quenneville] wish to re-enter the league in some capacity in the future, I will require a meeting with him in advance.”
“I” will require.
Having been ruthless, Bettman could now afford to be merciful. Former Chicago assistant general manager and current Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t just get let off the hook. He got the full pardon.
“While on some level, it would be easiest to paint everyone with any association to this terrible matter with the same broad brush, I believe that fundamental fairness requires a more in-depth analysis of the role of each person,” Bettman said in another of those statements.
There’s that “I” again.
Avenging prosecutor one day, rule-of-law defence counsellor the next and then on to concerned advocate for victims. Bettman capped his week of damage control by calling Beach and extending to him the protection of the league. A bit late, but it seems to have worked.
It isn’t completely out yet, but the Blackhawks scandal has been contained. A few bodies got tossed overboard, but not so many that it seems like frontier justice.
After a period of penance, most will be quietly invited back into the family. Things will roll on and everyone keeps making money.
Cynical? Sure. Effective? Absolutely.
Other leagues should be taking notes. This is how you deal with an institutional cock-up of epic proportions. Now if only someone could figure out how to avoid such problems in the first place, and they’d really be on to something.
Compare Bettman’s performance with his theoretical counterpart, NHL Players’ Association boss Donald Fehr.
I say theoretical because every time these two come into direct conflict, Bettman gets Fehr in a headlock and doesn’t let go until he’s got all the players’ lunch money. Is there a more one-sided fight in labour relations anywhere?
Bettman should have worn the Chicago scandal. It’s his league. He was in charge when this went down. The responsibility ends with him.
Instead, it’s attaching itself to Fehr, the players’ chief spokesperson. He was told twice about the Beach situation. He says he doesn’t remember those calls.
That’s the wrong answer. Not because it isn’t necessarily true, but because it makes you look shifty, feckless or both. You’re the players’ chief advocate. If you aren’t there to make them more money and you aren’t there when they say they’ve been a victim of alleged crime, then what exactly is it that you do?
People aren’t angry at Fehr because this is his fault. They’re angry at him because they need to be angry at someone and Bettman’s removed their other options.
On Monday, Fehr gets called to account by his bosses – the individual player reps for every team. Now it’s his turn to steer away from the rocks. It feels as though he started turning the wheel too late.
Whether or not Fehr goes, a fundamental truth has been re-established over the past few days – that this is Gary’s league. Everyone else is just playing in it.