is the NHL better off?

Eric at Off Wing notes it’s Bettman’s 12th anniversary, and asks the question “is the NHL better off than it was 12 years ago?”

He’s obviously pushing the “hell, no” agenda, but…

let’s remember:

Gil Stein was “president-elect”, replacing John Ziegler, who left under various clouds (remember “yellow-jacket-gate”? when a playoff game was refereed by fill-ins when the real refs refused to skate after a suspension was tossed out by the Devils going to court and getting a restraining order?

or remember that Ziegler wasn’t at the playoff game, and nobody could tell us why or where he really was? (turns out, as I remenber, he had a family issue — but nobody could actually tell us that?) — at least Bettman goes to hockey games.

The Minnesota North Stars were just turning into the Dallas Stars? the NHL wasn’t able to survive in one of the TOP hockey regions in the country? (on the other hand, the brand new San Jose Sharks were selling out 110 straight games — and a decade later, still selling out 98% of the tickets each game)

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim? That was Ziegler’s fault, not Bettman.

So were the Senators, Panthers. and Tampa.

Wayne Gretzky had already been traded to LA in an asset selloff by Edmonton Owner Peter Pocklington, who later went on to be nailed by Alberta on fraud charges over funnelling money out of his oil business to support his hockey team, then later, trying to prop up his oil businesses by sucking his team dry (and trading Gretzky).

Gretzky was traded to the Kings, owned by Bruce McNall — who was convicted of various fraud charges over sale of coins and other investments.

in 1977, the Blues were failing in St. Louis, and sold to — Saskatoon. Then not sold. sort of.

the Quebec Nordiques wouldn’t move to Colorado until 1995, but by the time Bettman came into the league, they were already a failed franchise.

Ditto the Jets in 1996.

Ditto the hartford whalers in 1997. they may have happened on Bettman’s shift, but they were killed by Ziegler and his cronies.

Two words: Alan Eagleson

Remember when the NHL and Ziegler dumped ESPN for SportsChannel, which promised them lots of money but no viewers?

Lots of what people love to blame Bettman for were things done before his time, that Bettman couldn’t fix. By the time he came on board, quebec and winnipeg were corpses, and Hartford was a laughingstock of a franchise. All moved. On the other hand, Bettman fought for and DID keep Calgary and Edmonton in place, when both could have also easily moved south.

the lockout year of 1994-95 was caused primarily from years of duplicity by Ziegler and Eagleson, and a newly aware union of players that realized they’d been sold down the river by those they thought were looking out for their best interests — and the ownership that turtled and signed a contract that was a disaster to get games going again rather than solve the problem that even THEN was clear needed to be dealt with.

In 1990, the average attendance at an NHL game was 14,700. In 2002 it was 16,600.

I could go on, but some of the books I want are in boxes. it’s easy to take swipes at Bettman — but facts are a lot more useful.

Are we better off now than 12 years ago?

Yes. and no.

The NHL pre-Bettman was a corrupt rich boy’s club, where owners got rich and players got dumped on. Ziegler and Eagleson conspired to maek the plyers think the union was standing up for them, but really handed the players off to the owners (we won’t even start on Eagleson’s double-dealings in other areas, adn the pension issues, and the….). Ziegler brought in the Sharks and Tampa (and if you ever want to see an expansion deal that made no sense, research what Esposito did HERE, then saw big bucks in Florida with Huizenga and Anaheim with Eisner — the league (and Bruce McNall, who later went to jail on felony fraud charges and took half of anaheim’s expansion fee as a “territory purchase) laughed all the way to the bank. the league had a solid relationship with espn, and threw it out the window because an upstart cable network offered them way too much money, but no real viewership (the last vestiges of SportsChanne exist as fox sport network affiliates such as Fox Sports Bay Area, after SportsChannel effectively failed). One can only wonder whether that has anything to do with current ratings disasters, or perhaps ABC/ESPNs lack of enthusiasm in hockey. Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg were failing. Vancouver wasn’t far behind.

Now, 12 years later, the league is finally trying to fix a contract it should have dealt with years ago. Where franchises failed under Ziegler and had to be moved, Bettman found ways to minimize the currency problems hitting canadian teams, and found a way to keep Edmonton in Edmonton (despite Pocklington’s legal problems and financial implosion) and calgary. Expanding into Atlanta is probably a mistake, but columbus seems like it’s a reasonable place for a team — a lot more reasonable than anaheim or Tampa or (these days) Chicago or the Island, for that matter. The teams that had to be moved may not all be thriving, but they’re doing better than they did in their old cities.

And for all the whining and complaining, despite expanding to 30 teams, average attendance is ALSO up 2,000 a game, league wide.

Now, if the league can’t solve this contract issue, it’s done. failed dead. but given that the reality is the league is losing less money by NOT playing than playing, it’s hard to argue with their hard line that this time, it has to be fixed. And the seeds of this were laid not by Bettman, but by the history of Ziegler and Eagleson colluding, and a set of owners who LAST time, chose to turtle over Bettman’s objections.

Remember: Bettman doesn’t run the NHL. He is the spokesman for the board of governors, who tell him what to do. In other words, he is the mouthpiece and scapegoat for the owners, not their boss. He can’t TELL them to do anything. He can only try to persuade and convince. His job, as much as anything else, is to stand up and take the abuse so the owners can hide and pretend it’s not THEIR fault.

And for all people complain about Bettman, I think, when you start to realize just how screwed up the league was in 1991 and 1992, that yes, we ARE better off now. And if he can actually fix the labor issue, you’ll see the NHL thrive, with or without bettman.

People who think the “good old days” of the NHL before Bettman were really good don’t really remember them. It’s 12 years later, adn Bettman is STILL trying to clean up the damage left behind by his predecessors.