It’s hard to say what part of Gary Bettman’s TV interview on Saturday was the most painful to watch.
This was supposed to be the middle of the NHL outdoors game, a showcase event put on by international hockey’s premier institution. Instead, Bettman was out there explaining why the NHL can’t figure out how ice works.
It’s like the head of NASA calling a presser to apologize for pointing a rocket the wrong way because they mixed up which direction space is in.
Was it Bettman’s posture? Was that the worst thing? The head of the league leaned up against the boards in a pose of pained relaxation, left hand working the mic cord as though he were considering strangling someone in game ops with it.
Was it his amateur meteorologist routine? Alerting NBC host Mike Tirico that there is a) sky above Lake Tahoe and b) it hates the NHL.
“If you look up at the sun …” – and here Bettman swept his hand out to indicate the sun’s precise location, just in case Tirico was unfamiliar with that celestial orb – “… the cloud cover is everywhere but where the sun is.”
Was it the auto-talk rambling? “The plan is simply that we concluded after consulting with our ice makers and both teams that we didn’t think it was safe or appropriate to continue this game at this time. Some of the players … [and on and on and on and].”
I guess it’s all of the above. Poor Bettman. Really. I feel for him. I don’t care how much they pay him. It’s not enough to make up for looking humiliated on this big a stage.
It doesn’t take an organizational genius to figure out that holding an outdoor cold-weather sporting event at noon on a golf course in a place where the average daily high is 5 C might present some logistical challenges.
Let’s charitably suppose NHL didn’t think it possible that the ice surface would begin to erupt like something out of Deep Impact, but that’s what it got. So many players and refs were taking headers on the rutted ice, it looked more like synchro diving than pro hockey.
The solution? The organizers delayed the final two periods of the game until 9 p.m. Pacific/midnight Eastern. That rendered the whole costly exercise pointless. What is the merit of a hockey game no one watches?
Granted, they play plenty of hockey games like that. I assume the average audience for most Florida Panthers’ home dates is however many ushers are working that night.
But the Outdoor Classic, in all its branding iterations, has only one purpose – to jazz up hockey for people who don’t watch hockey. It’s sports Christmas for atheists.
On Sunday night, after further delays in an attempt to avoid that cursed sun, the NHL got outdoor game No. 2 off without incident. One out of two ain’t bad. I guess that’s what they’ll be telling each other at the Monday morning cheerleading session at NHL headquarters.
There was a moment very early on when the outdoor game was a good idea. That moment passed.
It was a good idea when it was new. Who doesn’t love a familiar thing reconstructed in a different context? If we’re making a list, I’d like to have a world table-tennis championship played on the International Space Station and a fleece onesie I can wear to formal occasions.
All these things are stunts. People like stunts. Until you do them over and over again. Then it swings into farce. Which, despite the well-meaning effort of all involved, is where the Outdoor Classic’s first game ended up Saturday night.
It’s easy to understand the NHL’s fixation with playing outdoors. It gives the league a big project to plan each year, which is good for internal morale. It gets its broadcast partners stoked. It has multiple merchandising tie-ins.
But mostly the NHL loves outdoor games because they have the potential to become cross-cultural events. They let the league break out of its pure sports box for a day.
The NFL gets the Super Bowl halftime show and the NBA has all-star weekend. What’s the big regular-season memory the NHL gets to make this year? Bettman juggling on TV for 10 minutes while Tirico stands behind him ringing a metaphorical bell and saying, “Shame. Shame. Shame.”
If it’s big events they like so much, the NHL already had one and got bored of it.
The Olympics was the perfect vehicle. A two-week marketing superaccelerator that goes off like clockwork every four years. It was so turnkey that it didn’t require you to keep track of the keys.
So, of course, the NHL took it for granted. It wanted something of its own, something it could directly profit from. How hard can it be to arrange your own extravaganza? What could go wrong?
You just saw what. That’s the problem with buying your own circus. If the tent collapses, that’s on you.
One way of looking at the Olympics from the NHL perspective is that it’s someone else’s event, it’s disruptive to your business, and you have no control over it.
The other, better, way is that it’s a huge headache you outsource for free to someone else.
I’m not sure if the NHL was feeling sore about the perception it had given in and gone crawling back to the IOC for Beijing 2022. If you look at it from a PR perspective, it is a bit embarrassing.
But after Saturday’s small disaster, the league may be re-evaluating what is and isn’t worth getting embarrassed about.
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