What's Missing

Game-canceling NHL chief Gary Bettman is an easy villain, and deserves that status. But he has also reminded fans, in the worst possible way, what the game is worth.
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Before Christopher Nolan made billion-dollar movies about a very rich man angry with the world, he made Following, which is a 70-minute noir that he filmed on 16mm film stock—a far cry from the IMAX cameras Nolan would use for The Dark Knight—and shot on an estimated budget of $6,000. The film was about a floundering writer who follows a thief that doesn’t steal. Instead, he rearranges items, hides jewelry around the house, and places women’s underwear in the apartment in order to incite relationship difficulties.

All sports leagues start off something like Following. Not in terms of the panty-planting or art-stalking, but in the sense that they begin as low-budget entertainments without big names or high hopes; fundamentally, at that point, the leagues are just people mucking about just for the joy of it, if not without some hope of getting paid for it in the future. It's not really innocent, of course. It's just a different type of commerce, if one that's a bit easier to relate to than its mega-sized and metastasized version. Which is what follows, invariably, if the smaller thing works, and grows.

***

The NHL was no exception to this. Forgive this absurdly brief synopsis of the NHL-to-date, but: the league plugged along for its first few decades until it took a hit in the Great Depression/World War II era (who didn’t?) and then aggressively and ambitiously expanded in the 60’s and 70’s (who didn’t?). Unlike Major League Baseball or the NFL currently, it's hard to say the NHL ever had a true Golden Age during which it financially dominated the sports landscape. Even in the Gretzky/Lemieux days, when the hockey stars were brightest and the Great One was the Greatest, it still wasn’t a massive financial payday. You may recall the NBA was going through a Golden Age of its own in the 80’s that took precedent. The defining moment in hockey's U.S. history involves a bunch of college kids in Lake Placid on tape delay. That first miracle has never been matched, and probably never will be.

In 1993, this was all supposed to change. Not in the sense of new miracles, but in the NHL's belated rise into the ranks of the other outlandishly profitable professional sports leagues. Riding the Gretzky-in-Los Angeles wave, Gary Bettman was supposed to accomplish the following goals according to a New York Times article published his first day on the job (with my annotated remarks):

“Put a stop to labor unrest [!!!]; sell the product in television's mainstream marketplace [accomplished for the foreseeable future]; change the violent image of the game [concussions remain a massive issue]; curb salary inflation [perfect, except for the whole salary inflation part];…settle the divisive issue of possible Olympic involvement [“Bettman has not committed to altering the NHL season to accommodate for the Olympics”], and help launch several new expansion teams [more on this later].”

On February 1st, Bettman will celebrate his 20th year as commissioner. The league, which will almost certainly still be locked out, will not celebrate with him. The owners whose side he represents in the third labor-related work stoppage of his tenure may send him an Edible Arrangement or something. It won't be anything too splashy, though. Many of them weren't making much money before the lockout, and all of them currently spend what should be game nights—by their own choice, of course—staring at empty arenas.

***

I’m not an objective observer in the matter. I love hockey for what happens between the boards, and despise Bettman for—among other things—moving my beloved Hartford Whalers to Raleigh, North Carolina and changing their name to the Hurricanes. He did this with several other teams, including the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, and Minnesota North Stars. With only a few debatable cases, the southern migration has proved untenable. The NHL has been paying the city of Glendale some $25 million a year to keep the Coyotes; the Coyotes were formerly the Winnipeg Jets, who, it should be noted, got their team back last year when the Atlanta Thrashers—another of Bettman’s expansion teams—reinhabited Winnipeg. Both Florida teams are unprofitable, and the hockey teams in Columbus and Nashville are doing as well as you would think hockey teams in Columbus or Nashville would do. This is the market expansion Bettman was charged with accomplishing. He accomplished it, and it’s a spectacular clusterfuck.

For all the schadenfreude I derive from Bettman’s failures, I can’t fully condemn him for his role in the current lockout. I mean, I could, it's easy, but it doesn’t matter who is to blame anymore. What matters is that the central fallacy of Bettman's tenure is now quite clear. It's not so much that hockey was never meant for cities like Tampa Bay, Miami, Phoenix, Nashville or Columbus—although the numbers do tend to speak for themselves, there—so much as it is that hockey was perhaps never meant for a mass market in general.

Hockey deserves a large audience, certainly—one that consists of people who love hockey, as well as people who love people who love hockey and are willing to put up with them watching hockey and even make a token effort to pretend to care on occasion, and also for whatever misbegotten offspring issue from the relationship between the hockey-lover and the non-hockey lover. This is the hockey life-cycle. It is not one of aggressive expansion, but one of nurturing and quiet compromise, and one grounded in a peculiar sort of love. Under Gary Bettman, it has frequently been abandoned.

Despite being charged with ending labor unrest, Bettman has presided over three long lockouts: the season-shortening 1994-95 lockout, the season-ending 2004-05 lockout, and the current struggle. Some 2,223 hockey games (and counting) have been cancelled during Bettman’s divisive tenure. The NHL under Bettman is a league of instability—your team may move, your league may halt, your players may depart to skate on faraway ponds smoothed by strange Zambonis. This volatility, paradoxically enough, leads to even greater buy-in from the fans hearty enough to stick with the sport—we treasure every blessed instant of hockey, because since 1995, a lockout or a move or some other willed/dictated/preventable catastrophe has been fresh in everyone’s mind.

No other league deprives their fans of their product with such regularity in the name of making the game more popular. This is The Bettman Paradox: the league that shrinks in order to grow, the league that stops existing so it can continue to exist. And so the Winter Classic won’t be held this year, in front of an expected 110,000 hockey fans and bathed in the glow of universal media isn't-this-great delight, but it won't be held in the name of growing the fanbase. The season looks to be in serious jeopardy, but this is in order to showcase the product down the road. No gameday revenue will be collected, in the name of increasing profits. A more balanced division of revenues between owners and players is sought in hopes of leading to some blockbuster NHL hit down the line. Revenue sharing between the league's wildly and unsustainably unequal teams is… actually not being discussed, but there you go.

In the meantime, we are here. Hockey fans are not necessarily interested in what the league’s future possibilities are—it would be nice if it worked as a business, but as a sport it is already great, and beloved by many, all of whom love the sport and its dominant league for what they are, and have always been. Like his counterparts in the other major leagues, Bettman is an easy villain to target, but perhaps he has a larger, more ignoble-but-not-quite-villainous role to play in our sordid sport.

While Bettman and company will always seek their billion-dollar IMAX hit—some fluke-y Avatar that will pay for the next decade or so of misses—hockey fans have always been satisfied with the black-and-white, 16mm noir. In the beginning of Following, the writer starts shadowing random people in central London as a research method of sorts, and eventually befriends the thief in hopes of finding the great story that will bring him acclaim and success. Once they break into a few apartments together, he asks why the thief does what he does. The thief’s face sinks from congenially evil to purposeful: “You take it all away," he says, “to show them what they had.”

This is overdetermined, maybe, on Nolan's part. It is certainly something worse on Bettman's. But in the end, while Bettman may have taken 2,223 games from fans, he has belatedly made us appreciate what hockey is, and what it's worth. Hockey is, like all sports, something easily appreciated in the abstract, but much more fun in the present tense. For the moment, though, the former—all that abstraction, always and as ever—is all we've got.


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