October 2, 2012
Excerpt from The Instigator: Gary Bettman's ascension to the NHL's biggest job
By QMI Agency
In his book, The Instigator, author Jonathon Gatehouse details the ascension of a New York City kid who never played hockey to the sport's biggest job. Gatehouse examines Gary Bettman's motivations and explains how a true outsider manages to keep order in the game Canadians love.
In this the first of two excerpts, Gatehouse describes one of Bettman's biggest gaffes and how the commissioner's dream of hockey in the Sunbelt has been shelved.
From: The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever by Jonathon Gatehouse. Copyright © Jonathon Gatehouse, 2012. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).
Bob McCown, a veteran sports talk radio host in Toronto whose show is simulcast nationally on Sportsnet, is one of the NHL commissioner's betes noires. A few years ago, he started calling Gary Bettman "The Count" on-air, suggesting he resembles the plush Sesame Street Muppet vampire.
Then, after a tense in-studio interview in which he basically accused Bettman of lying about the Phoenix Coyotes' prospects for success in the Arizona desert, he unilaterally banned the NHL honcho from ever returning.
McCown says it had more to do with his "a------" radio persona than any personal beef, but his opinion has since hardened. The league, he claims, has orchestrated a whisper campaign against him, trying to undermine his credibility, all the while dissembling about the health of the game, especially in the Sunbelt.
"Gary tells you what he believes the truth is in his world, and my job is to be skeptical," says McCown. "But his ego is beyond anything I have ever met in my life. He absolutely refuses to acknowledge that there's anybody in the world who is as smart as he is."
And despite almost 20 years in the job, the commissioner in some ways remains a hockey outsider. After taking over, Bettman immediately instituted a personal policy of never leaving his seat at the rink until the game is over. But other Bettman diktats, like his refusal to cheer or applaud the action, lest he be perceived as biased, feed the widely held belief that he doesn't really know or care about the game.
Then there are the inevitable missteps. In the spring of 2008, Bettman went on New York's WFAN radio to talk about the NHL playoffs. One of the hosts, Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, mentioned that he had been fascinated by a vignette showing on the NHL Network about "Ace" Bailey, Eddie Shore and the origin of the all-star game. The first such exhibition in Toronto in 1934, he explained, was a benefit for Bailey, a Maple Leafs forward who had almost died after Shore, a Boston Bruins defenceman who defined truculence, hit him from behind, sending him to the ice and fracturing his skull.
Bailey never played again. That was the point at which Bettman jumped in and added his two cents: "And the tragic end to that story is he, Ace Bailey, was on one of the planes on 9/11."
Mad Dog and his co-host marvelled at that tidbit, wondering what a man that old was doing flying that day. And back at NHL headquarters, staffers who were listening to the broadcast picked their jaws up off of the floor. Garnet "Ace" Bailey, a winner of two Stanley Cups as a player with the Bruins during the early 1970s and the director of pro scouting for the Los Angeles Kings, was one of the unfortunates aboard United Airlines Flight 175 when it crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, but he wasn't the same guy.
Shore's victim, Irvine "Ace" Bailey, who went on to work as a timekeeper at Maple Leaf Gardens for more than 45 years, died of natural causes at the age of 88 in 1992.
The gaffe became the subject of much merriment around the league, but received surprisingly little coverage in the press.
Perhaps that's because many hockey reporters have learned discretion is the better part of valour when it comes to Bettman and his NHL lieutenants.
"I've never minded critical press as long as it's accurate," says Bettman. "Just don't make up things I said to fit your needs."
And while the commissioner allows he has no problem getting Canada's prime minister or senior U.S. legislators on the phone, he can't stop fans from going online to blog or tweet about how big an idiot they think he is.
Bettman is undeniably powerful but, sadly for him and the NHL owners, mostly in the place where hockey requires no help and can hardly grow bigger.
As a recent study by the University of Toronto's Mowat Centre pointed out, the NHL's record ratings in the United States during the opening round of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs not only paled numerically to the viewing figures in Canada, they neatly underlined the gulf between a fringe sport and a national pastime.
"Given the difference in population between the two countries, the results suggest that Canadians outside of Quebec were roughly 40 times as likely as Americans to have been watching a national broadcast of NHL hockey during the first week of April. And the French-language hockey audience was proportionally even bigger: A Quebecer was as much as 90 times as likely as an American to have been watching a hockey game."
In the United States, hockey has historically been, and largely remains, a regional game. During the 2010-11 season, the league's five largest local TV audiences were found in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia.
The five smallest were in Tampa Bay, Columbus, Phoenix, Atlanta and Miami, where on an average night just 3,000 households tuned into a Panthers game.
As negotiations for the NBC deal progressed in the spring of 2011, it became clear the NHL was preparing to leave the country's eighth largest media market, Atlanta, and perhaps its 12th largest, Phoenix, as well.
But retired NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer says the issue never came up at the table: "Would we rather have an American city than a Canadian one? Sure, but neither of those markets had embraced hockey."
The dream at the beginning of Bettman's tenure -- to transplant hockey to the sunny climes where so many Americans cluster -- isn't dead but it has been deferred.
Las Vegas is really the last large U.S. market without a major-league sports team. And for a number of years it figured prominently in rumours about the NHL's expansion plans.
Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the Maloof family, owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, were among those supposedly vying to bring puck to Sin City. And when the league struck a deal in 2009 to move its annual end-of-season awards show to the Maloof-controlled Palms Casino from Toronto, it seemed like a prelude to something far bigger.
At the 2011 edition of the NHL Awards, the league had all of its most hallowed hardware on display just inside the front doors of the casino, a stone's throw away from the Wheel of Fortune slot machines. Grouped together in a tight circle atop tables covered in black fabric, the trophies -- relics of simpler and cheaper times -- didn't just look out of place, they seemed downright ugly. The Vezina, with its black-and-white reliquary photo of Georges, cheap wood base, and what appears to be a faithful silver replica of the altar at St. Peter's in Rome, excepting the puck and beaver, might have been taken from the display case of a small-town legion.
The Art Ross, with its peeling varnish and winners' names affixed to cheesy miniature hockey pucks, screams garage sale. And the Rocket Richard Trophy, which captures the Flying Frenchman hatching from some sort of silver space egg, suggests the involvement of a cult. The league's one truly elegant award -- the Stanley Cup -- sat at the centre of the mess, identified by two placards and largely ignored by the gamblers.
Bettman wandered through the casino, deep in conversation on his cell phone. The NHL's biggest stars, many of them still sporting cuts, shiners and beards from the playoffs, drifted in, attracting little attention. And despite the presence of one certifiable celebrity -- Jon Hamm, the star of Mad Men and a die-hard fan of the St. Louis Blues -- there weren't many fans willing to stand outside in the 39°C heat to seek autographs.
A couple of weeks before the show, the latest efforts in Vegas to build an arena came to a screeching halt when the state legislature declined to endorse a bill that would have allowed three competing developers to begin the process of accessing public funding.
Nevada, with an unemployment rate of close to 15% and 40,000 personal bankruptcies in 2011, was the last state to officially climb out of the recession. The day before the awards gala, the Maloofs, facing their own financial difficulties, lost control of the Palms.
And Mayor Oscar Goodman, a longtime champion of an NHL team, didn't bother to turn up for the ceremony.
The next day's Las Vegas Sun carried a few photos and a column by ancient gossip maven Robin Leach. But by 11 a.m., all traces of pro hockey -- banners, souvenir stands, trophies, and players -- had disappeared from the hotel. And workers had changed the marquee outside in favour of the next attraction, Deep Purple in concert.
The letters were twice as big as the ones they used for the NHL Awards.
The hard-won NBC deal gives the NHL more visibility than it has ever enjoyed on U.S. television, and enough money that the league can now credibly claim to have separated itself from competitors like beach volleyball and arena football. But in many ways, hockey is still wandering in the desert -- passionately followed by millions and largely ignored by everyone else.
Part I of 2. Look for the next part in Thursday's Sun.