There are times, in professional
sport and elsewhere, when you need more than a competent manager. You
need visionary leadership, and right now, hockey in general, and the NHL in particular, finds itself at such a crossroads.
If that wasn't obvious before the 2010 men's Olympic tournament, it
certainly was by the time the festivities in Vancouver concluded with
the storybook finish in the gold-medal game.
In a lifetime, there have been precious few perfect expressions of
the sport's beauty – its speed, finesse and physical power – and just
about all of those have involved international competition in one form
or another (including the fondly remembered New Year's Eve clash
between the Montreal Canadiens and Central Red Army in 1975).
Obviously, it's a whole lot easier to create and maintain those
high-end aesthetics with only the best players in the world on the ice,
in a limited time frame with enormous emotional stakes. But still,
coming back to earth with the resumption of the NHL's 2009-10 regular
season was a most unpleasant thud, watching hopeless teams going
through the motions, remembering that staged fights are highlights,
sensing the league's Olympians were dealing with their own hangovers.
Hockey consumers encompassing the entire spectrum from passionate to
casual would agree the Vancouver Games experience was something to be
savoured – and to be repeated as soon as possible.
Outside of this continent, the exposure and the veneer of
significance garnered through the Olympics (or through a true World
Cup, if the league and the players could ever get their act together)
are invaluable. Though hockey will never translate globally, it already
has a strong foothold in enough attractive European markets to offer
possibilities unavailable to North American sports other than
basketball. The potential is there, far more than it is in Phoenix or
And yet with the sport's fans swooning all around him, the message
from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman before, during, and after the 2010 Olympics
was a studied indifference. He couldn't sound too enthused, because he
is in the business of peddling a very different (and inferior) product.
His employers, the franchise owners, a great many of whom seem to
retain the mindset of old-school arena operators from previous
generations, are less interested in the macro aspects of broadening the
sport's base than they are in their own immediate bottom lines.
There's nothing in the Olympics for them, they believe. It means two
weeks without product for their loyal customers and potential damage to
some of their most valuable assets. The big money from the Games flows
elsewhere, so they're hardly the most enthusiastic disciples of Pierre
Representing their narrow interests, Bettman has made it clear he
will use the possibility of future Olympic participation not as a
building block, but as a point of leverage with the players, hoping to
secure concessions in the next round of collective bargaining. They'll
be in Sochi in 2014, as they desire, but only after they've given
something back in return for the privilege.
In the meantime, Bettman is operating a sports business which is
unique in that its culmination event – the Stanley Cup final – isn't as
much of a destination as a gimmick game played outdoors in baseball or
football stadiums in mid-season (imagine if a retro-uniform game in the
NFL was bigger than the Super Bowl). And he is still working under a
more than two-decades-old business plan, based on the long-outmoded
notion that aggressive expansion into non-traditional markets in the
United States would result in network television riches.
(As for the other side of the equation, the players – well, given
the chaos in their union, just who does speak for them right now? And
how could anyone discern their collective feelings about anything?)
What a thing it would be for hockey to have someone at the helm who
could ride the momentum from the Olympics, who could grab the owners by
their lapels and say forget your dead-end ideas, now is the time to
take a leap, to think internationally and reap big rewards down the
road. Someone who could forge a relationship with the players based on
real mutual interests rather than threats.
Why leave Europe to the KHL, close the doors opened by the Olympic
experience, when the alternative is the same-old, same-old game of
Barring a remarkable transformation, Bettman just isn't that guy. And for hockey and those who love it, that's too bad.