|Bettman or a vampire? You decide|
BCB and I haven't been around much lately for a myriad of different reasons, and none of them particularly worth mentioning. However a friend of the bringing back the glory family, Doug Nesbitt, has been writing some very interesting things as of late. Doug is a labour history student in lovely Kingston Ontario at one of Canada's self-proclaimed "best" universities. That claim is a lie, but that's neither here nor there. And don't let that scare you off regarding where our beloved Oilers' MacFearless leader received his MBA. Apparently it is the one thing this place still does well. Anyhoo, Doug, despite being a Leafs fan, is a pretty smart dude and wrote some words worthy of publication on our underwhelming little space. Please enjoy it.
The Bettman-engineered bullshit in Phoenix ends for now with Arizona taxpayers forking over tens of millions of dollars to subsidize a failed franchise. Let's be clear: the loss of Winnipeg to Phoenix had nothing to do with US-Canadian exchange rates and everything to do with Bettman's desire to move the team to Phoenix because of its massive regional television market. Bettman and Co have proven again and again that the league is more than capable of bailing out teams in financial difficulty, even taking them into league ownership.
But why bailout Phoenix and not Winnipeg? Bettman's entire project, since he became Commissioner at the behest of the owners, has been US expansion into major television markets in order to land a lucrative American network television deal. This explains the two Florida teams, Atlanta, San Jose, Anaheim, Nashville, Minnesota moving to Dallas, Hartford moving to Carolina, Winnipeg to Phoenix, Quebec City to Colorado (even though Colorado had already failed in the 1970s, much like the first Atlanta franchise), and then the granting of another Minnesota team seven years after the move to Dallas. All this activity happened between 1991 and 1999.
This project should not be a surprise. It was the desire for an American network contract that motivated the original expansion from 6 to 12 teams in 1967. But in the United States, hockey isn't football, baseball or even basketball. Bettman's project failed consistently, producing a number of financially unstable teams. From this situation stems the 1994 and 2004 lockouts. In both lockouts, Bettman and the owners sought to impose a salary cap on the players in order to free up cash for a profit-sharing system in which profitable teams subsidized failing teams necessary to land the network contract.
But expansion has brought with it other problems that has led Bettman and the owners to radically alter the game's rules in very bad ways. The shootout and elimination of the two-line pass were done for ratings - to produce a higher scoring, faster, and "entertaining" game. Prior to the 2004-5 lockout in which Bettman caused the loss of an entire season in order to win the team salary cap, the NHL hit the lowest goals-per-game rate since the mid-1950s. Between 1975 and 1993, teams averaged between 3.4 and 4 goals per game. Between 1997 and 2004, this fell from 2.9 to 2.6 (and have fallen since a peak after the lockout down to 2.7). NHL hockey in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a slow, boring, defensive affair (save Colorado and Detroit) in which "clutching and grabbing" was the major on-ice problem.
The collapse in goal scoring was in great part a result of the league's expansion from 21 to 30 teams in nine years which dramatically diluted the talent pool, making old defensive strategies like the neutral-zone trap radically more effective when implemented by well-coached teams like Jacques Lemaire's New Jersey Devils. With a diluted talent pool, you got relatively slower and less talented players relying on clutching and grabbing to even the odds. This was combined with a revolution in goaltending techniques, like the butterfly and subsequent pro-fly popularized by Patrick Roy, and a brief period of unregulated goalie equipment enlargement. In the hope of creating a higher-scoring and thus "entertaining" game for new fans, eliminating the two-line pass was precisely about breaking Lemaire's trap. It should be noted that Detroit also employed a left-wing lock, imported by Bowman from the Soviet style of play that went along with Bowman's successful attempts to recreate the five-man units developed by the Soviets by literally using those same Russian players.
The shootout was all about ratings. Bettman continues to claim fans are "bored" by tied games. You'd expect that from someone who said he never watched a hockey game before he became NHL commissioner. Bettman's only concern is TV ratings and landing a lucrative network contract. In addition to profoundly violating the team essence of the sport by making shootouts the basis upon which teams win, the extra point awarded to shootout wins has totally warped the standings. The battles for the last playoff positions at the end of the season are often unfair and unreflective of who actually has a better winning record. The shootout is sheer bullshit and has to go.
Meanwhile, the NHL, whether Bettman or Shanahan, is completely incapable of enforcing safety standards on headshots, hits from behind, and cross-checking. This "let them play" attitude is a cover for creating an incredibly dangerous game which has led to an epidemic of concussions and other injuries. Players like Matt Cooke, whose deliberate attempts injure and end the careers of star players, get slaps on the wrist in highly inconsistent suspensions handed down from Shanahan - who has obviously had his head rattled a few too many times. And the ongoing failure to implement automatic icing, like in minor hockey, is indicative of the league's total lack of interest in player health and safety.
This is the NHL as the owners and Bettman want it: a vicious assault on the sport's integrity, its fans, its players, and the cities in which its teams are located. I welcome the destruction of the NHL and its replacement with player-run teams and community-owned venues.
Doug Nesbitt is a History PhD candidate at Queen's University and a labour rights activist. His (non-academic) work can be found at rankandfile.ca and occasionally on Rabble. We here at BBTG appreciate Doug's contribution to our blog and will attempt to get him appropriately drunk as compensation for his efforts.