There are a few reliable signs that summer has arrived – evenings get longer, jackhammers get louder and the elusive king of the hockey forest, Gary Bettman, emerges from hibernation for his brief media season.
As is his habit once the Stanley Cup final begins, the NHL commissioner has been all over the place this week. He’s talked a great deal and hasn’t said very much.
Seattle will get a team, but it’s going to have to suffer for it first. The salary cap is going up, which means everyone’s getting fat. And, on concussions – what’s a concussion?
In the past, Bettman, 65, had a real Prince of Darkness vibe when he went out on these rare public rounds. One accusatory question and his face would flatten, the stare would harden and you just knew someone had made a terrible, terrible enemy for life.
But not this Bettman. This Bettman is as happy-go-lucky as the sort of man who’d wear a Brooks Brothers suit to a beach bonfire can get.
When Don Cherry put this Bettman on the spot on live television, the boss looked mildly amused at how cheeky the help can be (as opposed to the way he used to look at Cherry – like he was going to have him run over in the parking lot).
His answer to Cherry’s Quebec City expansion question was a lot like his concussions dodge – what’s a Quebec?
Fifteen years ago, people would have lost their minds. That’s when Bettman was still a carpetbagging sleeper agent sent by the deep American state to ruin hockey and soften Canada up for the future trade war.
But these days everyone just nods and says, “Well, if Gary thinks that’s the right thing to do, then … .”
You still may not like Bettman. Lots of people don’t. Other than a reflexive xenophobia as it applies to the national sport, it’s hard to figure out why.
Bettman wasn’t hired to be a Guardian of the Eternal Flame. He was brought in to make the NHL work as a business. He’s done that.
Over his quarter century in charge, he hasn’t taken an administrative step wrong. He’s overseen profit growth. He’s staked out new territory. He’s broken the union (if you can call a bunch of guys who make millions to work in short pants “broken”).
Since he feels no connection to the Grand Tradition in the Canadian sense, he’s even managed to make the game itself better.
Think back to the way hockey looked when Bettman arrived. It was five-a-side rugby in the neutral zone. There is still vast room for improvement, but subsequent, sweeping rule changes have at least given the game back its flow.
Sports are populated at the highest levels by blowhards, true believers and tremulous, small-c conservatives (usually all three at once).
Bettman is the opposite of that. He’s a pragmatist. He isn’t waving Conn Smythe’s torch. He’s carrying Jack Welch’s.
If he has a little more spring in his step these days (so – some spring at all), it’s down to Las Vegas.
First things first − this should not have worked. Not under any circumstances. Hockey in the desert is no different than baseball in the Himalayas – environment matters.
In a sensible world, things and the place where those things happen should complement each other in some way. You don’t play a game on ice in a place that never sees any.
Apparently, we’re not only post-truth, we’re post-sense. Even the most cynical hockey lifer must agree that the Golden Knights are a great story.
The arena’s full. U.S. TV ratings for this final are trending at recent highs. The games have been entertaining. Even Canada is enjoying it.
Bettman has become to Las Vegas sports what Bugsy Siegel was to the city itself – a man who saw something no one else could.
This unlikely success has given Bettman a quality he didn’t have, and may not even want – an air of romance.
If hockey falls off in Vegas – and I still believe it will once the team becomes mediocre, as all teams eventually must, and the NFL arrives – it has at least busted out of the gate. That’s what people will remember. Bettman gets the credit.
Among other things, his career is proof that you can wear down your critics through a combination of time, competence and a lack of oxygen.
The key to Bettman’s leadership style is that he doesn’t have one. Not one that you can see, anyway. He doesn’t feel the need to be heard. He’s not front and centre every second week putting out a fire. His general position on fires − what’s a fire?
TSN’s Rick Westhead dug up a series of taped depositions this past week relating to the NHL’s ongoing head-injury lawsuits. They revealed a lot of things, but the most interesting was offering insight into how the league’s decision-makers operate under pressure. As it turns out, not so well.
Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs said he’d never heard of CTE – making him the concussion equivalent of a Flat Earther. Brian Burke, Calgary Flames boss at the time, looked like he was going to come out of his chair and throttle the deposing lawyer.
You know who didn’t lose his cool under questioning? Gary Bettman.
By all accounts, Bettman works from the Meaningful Silence School of Management − if you step out of line, you get called to his office. He spends a half-hour stroking a cat and staring at you. You leave having received the message. No public rebuke is necessary.
This calm at the top has suffused every level below. The NHL under Bettman has become a hive mind. Even when it’s not in their best interest, the players move in lockstep with ownership.
The NFL is a good example of what happens when the league’s strategy is instead having no strategy. Egos run amok, everyone goes rogue and the media’s circus tent is always full.
When was the last time you heard an NHL owner say something truly stupid? When was the last time you can remember one saying anything at all? You’d be hard-pressed to name five of them. They’re anonymous.
If you can manage to corner one, he knows the best answer is always, “Ask Gary.”
When the CTE question was again put directly to Bettman this week in the other place he can’t avoid it – his annual state-of-the-union address – he said, “I’m not going to start another news cycle. There’s nothing new on the subject.”
Then he turned the problem over to one of his well-coached underlings.
There are only so many times we can have urgent conversations about this. As long as active players aren’t complaining – and they aren’t – few will care.
At some point, money may change hands in a courtroom, but hockey’s concussion era (which is quite distinct from the getting of concussions) is ending. Bettman didn’t fix the problem. He waited for people to lose interest. As solutions go, it takes longer, but it’s just as effective.
Once the concussion issue becomes background noise, there are no other pressing concerns in the NHL.
We’ll fret over the Olympics again in three years time. Some southern team will get in financial trouble and be saved by the league’s fat-cat socialism. Somebody will create an arena fuss, then commence shooting themselves repeatedly in both feet until they are forced to stand down.
Meanwhile, ancillary revenues will continue to pay off like a green grocer. Somebody is always available to bloat the bottom line with an expansion fee. The players will accept their unfair share and, having been flattened in their past three work actions, feel grateful to get it.
The law of averages suggests there’s a black swan out there somewhere – some unforeseeable event that will disrupt everything. But for now, it’s close to perfect calm.
This is down to the commissioner. After 25 years, the NHL has become Gary’s World. Without ever having agreed to take up residence, the rest of us just live in it.