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Monday, April 18, 2005
State of hockey isn't Bettman's fault

By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com

After surfing the Web and reading hockey coverage in the United States and Canada, I find it rather obvious some columnists are pro-player/anti-owner, others are pro-NHL and perhaps, more bluntly, anti-player, and others understand this is a negotiation between two wealthy bodies that can't agree on how to split the billions and there is no need to get emotional over such an uninspiring thing.

I don't have an agenda and feel no allegiance with either side. I report and write based on conversations with a wide range of members from the hockey community; research; and my own observations, experiences and gut feelings. When I go to a hockey game, I sit in the stands, not the press box. I think that says it all about what perspective I'm coming from.

Some writers are pretty adamant in their opinion that Gary Bettman is a failure as commissioner, has ruined hockey and needs to go.

How would you vote? Should Bettman remain as commissioner, yes or no?

Based on your e-mails throughout the years I think less than 50 percent of you would vote yes. Probably 30 percent yes, 70 percent no, give or take 5 percent. The interesting part is you, the fan, largely blame the players and/or Bob Goodenow for the lockout  about 65 percent of you in various polls, give or take a few percentage points. That's what makes the state of the NHL so depressing right now. The fans are offended by the players, revile Goodenow, have no idea what the owners are thinking, and believe Bettman ruined the NHL with the expansion of the league and the curbing of fighting. The players hate Bettman, the owners hate Goodenow, and even Steve Moore and Todd Bertuzzi still have issues. Quite frankly, it could not be worse. We have truly reached the bottom of the puck bucket.

But, let's focus on Bettman. How do we rate his job performance? How do we know how much blame he deserves and how much should be heaped on owners, GMs, players, officials, coaches or David Schwimmer?

First, let's get the Bettman stereotypes out of the way. This is what you and the players keep saying:

1. He's an NBA guy.
People, he has worked longer for the NHL than he did for the NBA. He is no more an NBA guy than Brendan Shanahan is a Hartford Whaler.

2. He's an American lawyer who never played the game.
Did David Stern play basketball? No. Did Bud Selig play baseball? My gosh, no. I'm convinced Paul Tagliabue is a robot made by Dell, so he doesn't qualify here.

3. He de-emphasized fighting and alienated the hard-core fan.
There is no fighting in the Olympics or the college game, and they are both wildly popular. The league is 30 percent European. Fighting would have gone down, no matter the rule changes. Fights are wildly entertaining, and even if they weren't allowed they would still exist. Players would just be ejected and sometimes suspended. But we digress &

4. He expanded too much and too fast.
This is the most difficult question for me to tackle. I still believe with the pool of Canadians, Americans and Europeans, putting 30 teams on the ice is not a stretch. Look, the Boston Red Sox have never been more popular in the history of the franchise. Do you realize the Red Sox didn't average at least 10,000 fans a game until 1946? And averaged just 50 percent capacity until 1967? And averaged about 75 percent until 1988? Today, 104 years after they began play in the American League, they sell out every game.

Things take time.

It takes time until a fan becomes a dad and takes his son and daughter to a game. And it takes even longer for a grandfather to be able to take his grandson and granddaughter to a game in the same rink he saw a game in. That's the pull of Wrigley, Fenway and Yankee Stadium. That was the big mistake the NHL made -- obliterating perfect rinks and building Wal-Mart warehouses that have all the charisma of Kevin Federline. Additionally, choking the offense out of the game, and not being unified caretakers, has injured the game. But, that is courtesy of bad ownership, shortsighted GMs and coaches who lacked the vision and backbone to change. The NFL has smart, unified ownership and a competition committee that has offense in mind.

I saw this quote cross-stitched in the bathroom of "Average Joe's" bar in Columbus, Ohio, last month: "What we need to do is learn to work in the system, by which I mean that everybody, every team, every platform, every division, every component is there not for individual competitive profit or recognition, but for contribution to the system as a whole on a win-win basis."
-- W. Edwards Deming

I believe that, after years of expansion, new ownership, new arenas, getting the NHL to the Olympics, dealing with a carnivorous union head, creating a first-class All-Star Game weekend, quadrupling the NHL's revenues with aggressive, smart marketing ploys, and mucking and grinding through this demanding job 24/7/52, Bettman is slowly achieving his goals. I also believe that after feeling his way through the job the first few years, dealing with the array of international issues no other commissioner deals with, transforming the NHL headquarters into a professionally run and big-thinking league and grinding through this CBA negotiation by not backing down, Bettman has finally gotten the NHL to realize the league has to operate with the Deming quote in mind. In fact, it should be cross-stitched in every NHL team office. The NHL needs a mission statement, and it needs to reflect Deming's admittedly idealistic thought.

From the beginning of his tenure, Bettman has tried to keep hockey's momentum going by increasing revenues and growing the sport in areas that are experiencing population explosions, and long-term, are the places to do business. He didn't shelve the season during the 1994-95 lockout and kept extending the CBA in hopes his owners and the NHLPA would see that things had to change economically and drastically. Well, we have finally reached critical mass, and the economic game of chicken has had, perhaps, unforeseen benefits. Bettman not giving in to Goodenow will end up being the best thing that has happened to the NHL in some time because it has woken up a slumbering sport and has people thinking creatively, proactively and drastically. Yes, it would have been nice to have this kind of thinking years ago, but there was too much rancor, too many new teams with unique agendas and too many people believing this day would never happen.

Now, there is actual talk about bigger nets. There are discussions on making NHL games better TV shows by taking some of the power away from GMs and PR departments, who have no business in the TV business. The league was planning to "relaunch" with a new logo, marketing ploys and an aggressive business plan. Obviously, with the events of the past year, those plans will reach a whole new level of desperation, as creativity, investment and daring, forward thinking will be the rule, not the exception. There were too many people who were blind to the condition of the game, the economics and the collective mind-set and relationships that have stunted the game. This has brought the industry and its players to their knees. When we get an agreement, hopefully, there will be an understanding that it will take a full team effort to bring the game out of the drainpipe.

I believe Bettman is the best man for this job. His skills are in marketing, business planning and, now, leading a large group of people in one direction, not 30. His marketing side is salivating at the thought of taking on the challenge of reconstructing the game almost from scratch. When Bettman took this job, his vision was to grow a regionally popular sport. He had what the game has often lacked -- a grand vision of bigger things. More people watch and can see NHL hockey than ever before. It is a richly international game with a vast array of personalities and talent. Hockey in the United States continues to grow and, with the next draft, all the efforts of USA Hockey will begin to show with the likes of Jack Johnson, Jack Skille and, in the future, Phil Kessel.

Were there missteps along the way? Sure. I wish there were still a team in Hartford, now that I live 10 minutes from the rink and have seen the roots of the sport in Connecticut that make it worthy of an NHL team. Aside from my personal request, think of all the game has been through as the landscape of society, sport and economics has changed. More people play, attend and watch hockey games than ever before. It's time to take all the great things of the game, come together and bring the game to where it has never been before. I believe Bettman has emerged as a strong commissioner who has control of his owners and is the most qualified to lead the business side of the game while fostering a climate of aggressive stewardship on the ice.

Let me know what you think.

John,
I just wanted to write you to tell you that I got to play a pickup game at HSBC arena last night, and they let us use the prototype rounded nets the league is supposedly considering. I have to say that, after having used them just a bit, I'm in favor of the league giving them a shot, at least at the AHL level or during the preseason. The reason I like them is that they are the same dimensions at ice level as the current nets, and feature extra shooting area only from about the middle of the goal up. Translation: They will marginally increase the number of pretty goals scored when NHL-caliber shooters fire at them, but they won't really affect the number of garbage and rebound goals that get scored. Given the NHL's need for a more aesthetically pleasing product, I say bring on the new nets.

Oh yeah -- they look cool, too.

D.E. Hannum


Dear John,
If the NHL would only make the netting, which is the real target, a visually optimal color like red instead of white the shooter would then be better able to see the open space. There is a reason stop signs are red and hunters are required by law to wear orange (both colors at the extreme end of the visible light spectrum). I've researched the impact of changing the color of the net and I am convinced that it will work.

Sincerely yours,
Grayson Fertig


John,
As the French-Canadian media seem to be providing the only coverage of this, I thought it might be news to you that beloved hockey personality Paul Buisson has died of a heart attack at age 42. The French sports network up here, RDS, broadcasts every single Habs game each season and Paul had a segment during the second intermission of each one. His segment was called Hors Jeu, which means Offside. It usually involved Paul going remote for interesting activities with hockey personalities. He was funny, interesting, and among the most devoted Canadiens fans of all time. The RDS broadcast will never be the same. If you can find some way to honour him, either on air, in your column, or at a public appearance, I'm sure it would be much appreciated by the French hockey community.

Andrew Sharpe
Moncton, New Brunswick


John,
NHL legend Esa Tikkanen has agreed to coach Norwegian Elite Division team Frisk Asker Tigers, a club located just outside Oslo.

Thom
Oslo, Norway

Can't wait to hear Esa's first pregame pep talk.


John,
To all those purists out there who worry that changes would ruin the record book: I say, so what! The only record that really counts is who raises the Stanley Cup. All other records are relevant only within the timeframe of a player's career. How do you compare players from different eras when not only are players getting bigger, stronger, faster, the equipment is also changing. So in 100 years, when we are living to be 120 years old and a player's career lasts for 50 years, will the number of games that Gordie Howe or Mark Messier played be any less impressive? No, it just occurred under different circumstances. The most important thing to remember is that the game itself is what counts, not the owners, not the players, not even the fans. The game will change and adapt according to the conditions that exist, but it will still be the best game there is.

Cam Neely still needs to be in the Hall of Fame.

Rich Morrow
Kamloops, British Columbia

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The NFL is successful because it promotes teams and legislates a balance between the offense and the defense. Fans don't fret about records. When Peyton Manning breaks all the passing records, it will be celebrated despite the 47 different sets of offensive rules over the decades. The NFL rules give fans offense and hope. NHL rules give fans defense and the Devils going 198-2-1 when leading after two.


John,
Been a hockey fan my whole life. I have never been happier with my decision to buy tickets when the AHL came to Philly nine years ago than I am this year! It's a better game than the [NHL] and now it's the only game in town. Anyway, on to more important things: My wife and I are expecting our second child, a bouncing baby boy, in August. We have been having quite the time coming up with names so I thought I'd see what you could come up with.

Thanks!
Dave Berkson

A "K" sound in the last name is good for hockey. Let's build on that with a "K" sounding first name. Casey Cameron Berkson. Casey Berkson will be a swift-moving centerman of the Eric Staal ilk.


John,
After reading your column on rule changes, I have to ask: Do you think increased scoring will make the game more exciting? If high scores make a sport, then basketball would be the most exciting game in the world. I am no purist who says the game needs to be exactly how it is. You say increasing the net size is the ONLY way to increase scoring, and I agree. But so what? You want to make the game more exciting, forget about the scoring and focus on the scoring chances.

Scott
Brandon, Miss.

Lots of scoring chances and no goals over the course of a long season is like a bunch of long fly outs to the warning track. It robs the game of explosions, excitement and hope for comebacks. When teams understand it's difficult to score because of small nets, outstanding goaltending and subtle interference, once they get a lead, they gear down. They don't attack. They sit back. They interfere just a little bit. Do you understand how that affects scoring chances and flow? If you know two goals can win, why score three? That stunts the game and slows it down. More goals would enhance flow! If there were more goals, there would be more hope, more attacking and less sitting back.


John,
I would like to salute you for your stand on bigger nets; we need them. Every sport needs a balance between offense and defense, and hockey has been tilted way too much towards defense. Every other measure is just window dressing without any real effect.

The main argument against bigger nets is the record books, which is foolish. Not only was Wayne Gretzky able to shoot against smaller goalie equipment, the equipment then was also significantly heavier and less protective than it is nowadays with EPP foams, etc. As far as the records, let's look at other sports. In baseball, new stadiums are smaller and more hitter-friendly; Roger Maris did not hit pop-ups-turned-home-runs at Coors Field. In football, how do you compare Peyton Manning playing in a climate-controlled dome vs. a quarterback playing outdoors in the Snow Belt?

Rolf Brunner

John Buccigross' e-mail address – for questions, comments or cross-checks – is john.buccigross@espn.com.