Of all weeks for news of Gary Bettman signing a five-year contract extension as NHL commissioner to leak out, it had to come in the middle of one of his worst in the league’s big chair.
Bettman has been taking hits from all sides this week, a beating that has left him looking harried and defeated and at times on the verge of a loss of composure.
He lashed out at the Goldwater Institute early in the week over the taxpayer watchdog’s opposition to the house of cards the league has been propping up in the desert. He essentially showed his middle finger to a major league sponsor after it expressed serious concerns about the growing number of violent incidents in the league.
He rightly supported his league’s decision to not suspend Zdeno Chara for a hit on Montreal’s Max Pacioretty — which caused a very serious injury — but still has faced immense criticism from people around the league as well as politicians and financial backers. Even the police are investigating the Chara hit, which makes the NHL’s decision not to issue a suspension look pretty weak.
While I don’t believe Chara intentionally tried to injure Pacioretty, the situation could not have been more ill-timed for the NHL, coming in a week when the hockey world was already abuzz with talk about Sidney Crosby’s lingering concussion, recent bench-clearing brawls and the dangers of both fighting and hits to the head.
Whether Chara’s hit was suspension-worthy is certainly debatable, given the severity of the injury, and because of the optics alone, the NHL could have saved itself a lot of trouble by doling out even a minimal suspension or fine.
But it didn’t and now the furor is growing and it’s got some people wondering about the quality of the NHL’s leadership.
Bettman looked at times angry, defiant and even petulant when talking about the stalled sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to Matthew Hulsizer this week — more like a kid not getting his own way than the commissioner of a major sports league.
He bristled when asked about Air Canada’s threat to pull sponsorship, essentially telling a long-standing partner to take off.
It was not the kind of response people expected to hear from a leader. Then again, you wouldn’t expect a great leader to bend over backward repeatedly to save a hockey team in a market that barely knows it exists.
People who cover the game across the continent are writing regularly that NHL hockey is becoming an embarassment. One of the game’s greatest players — Mario Lemieux — is among the harshest critics.
Truth be told, the bad news has far outweighed the good this season, with the injury to the game’s brightest star and the Coyotes comedy casting the nastiest-looking black clouds.
All is not lost for the man with the shiny new $7.2 million per season contract, however. Bettman can start earning that hefty salary at NHL GM meetings next week. The pressure will be on for the league to start doing more about head shots, frivolous fighting and, intentional or not, incidents like the one involving Chara and Pacioretty.
He can also close his eyes to the desert mirage known as the Phoenix Coyotes and do the right thing by allowing the franchise to move back to its original home.