If you’re on the Calgary Flames message board, and you type a curse word, it will be automatically censored and replaced with another word. A certain curse word is automatically changed to Gary Bettman. The man isn’t exactly universally loved.

Like the dreaded East Coast bias or anti-Vancouver referees, much of the criticism regarding Gary Bettman is rooted in myth. He hates Canada. He hates players. He hates fighting. He hates hockey. He hates the troops and loves Communism, torture and the Twilight series.

While essentially untrue, not all the criticism is unfounded. Bettman is willing to expend resources in attempts to woo or protect American markets, and seems uninterested in extending Canadian markets the same regard. When Canadian teams relocated, Bettman thought it was a shame. When American teams threatened to relocate, Bettman was willing to fight. It’s hard to argue that Bettman cares equally about Canadian markets.

Further, fans of old time hockey have reason to resent Bettman, as he’s changed so many aspects of hockey. His insistence on a salary cap, his moves to reduce the fighting in the game, his efforts to increase scoring and move away from the “clutch ‘n grab” NHL of the past, are all definite changes. Many fans are of the opinion that Bettman is insisting on fixing a system that isn’t broken, and some even argue that he does this out of spite.

The simple truth of the matter is that Bettman has a difficult and high-profile job, and so millions of people will think they could do a better job. In fact, Bettman took the reins of a league that was facing some very serious issues, and has dealt with them so effectively that many fans forget about them.

The league at the time was facing serious issues with regards to labor, revenues, and retaining its status as the premier hockey league. Bettman has been blamed for many of these problems, which simply isn’t fair.

It’s true that Bettman presided over two NHL lockouts, but he didn’t create the labor issues. When he took over the league, they’d already had a recent lockout — only ten days, but still… the league and players were clearly already having issues. They were created by the NHL expansion. If hockey was going to break into new markets, the teams there needed to be halfway decent, and that ultimately meant a salary cap. The older, more established teams had the revenue to essentially purchase all the top talent, and prevent newer teams from competing. If the NHL wanted to expand successfully, it needed a salary cap, and it took two tries to make it happen because the players refused to let it happen.

Bettman took a lot of heat from fans and players for his uncompromising attitude, but really it’s the NHLPA that was pushing against the necessary changes to the league. Hockey is growing, with more and more young talent arriving, and more potential markets becoming viable. If the NHL doesn’t expand, another competing league can take those players and markets. That’s certainly not good for the NHL, and Bettman’s paid a lot of money to ensure the supremacy of the league.

It’s his looking at the big picture that’s led to a lot of the nonsense about hating Canada. Bettman doesn’t hate the Canadian audience, he just rightly takes it for granted. Move a playoff game to favor the American television market and the Canadian market will adjust their schedules. Move an NHL team out of Canada and the city will spend the next three decades trying desperately to get it back. Canadian fans are loyal, and because they are, it’s better to spend resources courting the more fickle American audience. Unlike Canadian fans, Americans require some effort to keep their attention. Bettman’s willing to give that attention.

The truth is, the problems the NHL faces are complicated and multi-faceted, and it’s unlikely that anyone outside the loop is able to fully understand them. There’s no special reason that the NHL has to be the best hockey league in the world. If they weren’t willing to expand at the right times, and to make efforts to protect their expansions, there’s no reason to believe they’d still be the best league in the world, routinely attracting the most talented players. Despite his lack of popularity, he’s represented the interests of the NHL very well during his tenure.

Meet the New Boss…

I don’t understand the people who are jumping for joy that Brendan Shanahan is taking over for Colin Campbell as NHL disciplinarian. It’s almost as if fans don’t remember that discipline problems predate Campbell’s holding the role. Campbell wasn’t the problem, he was just ineffective in dealing with the problem. He brought his own scandalous baggage regarding his son last season, but that was hardly the cause of his unpopularity.

It may very well be the reason he’s leaving his post, though… The controversy damaged Campbell’s credibility enough that he was an embarassment. If he were to lose his spot in mid-November, when the story was all the rage, that would have been a tacit admission of guilt by the NHL, which couldn’t happpen. It’s possible, as I predicted in November, that the NHL was just biding its time until the story was dead. What better time to announce Campbell’s resignation, without too much scrutiny, than when the media are distracted at the start of the Cup Finals?

The truth is, Shanahan’s quick rise through the ranks of the NHL front office wouldn’t happen if he didn’t have the approval of the big bosses — Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and… Colin Campbell. Sure, Shanahan’s got plenty of integrity, but Bettman and company have a way they like things to run, and if Shanahan wanted to mess with it, he wouldn’t be offered the job.

Most likely, Shanahan’s reputation is a tool the league can use in negotiations with the NHLPA, and a shield from the scrutiny of fans. Anyone who thinks the problems with NHL discipline are over is in for a rude awakening.

…Less Opaque Than the Old Boss

While Shanahan himself might not be the savior, he and the NHL are making headway in dealing with the most prominent complaint when it comes to discipline — the lack of transparency.

Shanahan has pledged to put out explanatory videos after every hearing. It’s possibile these videos could make a difference when it comes to consistency of decisions. Even if they don’t, having the NHL disciplinarian go on record in such a way will make it easier to spot inconsistencies.

The Kings Really Scare Me

The Canucks, despite losing Ehrhoff, look like they still have the strongest roster in the NHL, with no clear weaknesses. This team is built to run for the Cup, and they’re going to be capable of deep runs for the next few years.

Unfortunately, they’re going to have some serious trouble getting past the Kings. If I were a Kings fan right now, I’d be giddy looking at the roster, with Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar down the center, and Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson looking like they might be a better duo than Keith and Seabrook. They’ve got strong options in goal, good defensive depth, wizened veteran leadership and some talented snipers and power forwards.

Worse, they’ve got a grudge against the Canucks.

Sure, the Sharks ended their playoffs last season, but it was two seasons ago that was truly magical — when the Kings finally returned to the playoffs. That year signaled that the rebuild was essentially complete. It was magical. It ended at home in six games, thanks to the Canucks. The Kings will remember that. The Canucks don’t care much about the Kings, so it’s possible LA will get up more for the series.

Fortunately, it looks like the Kings have no intention of paying Drew Doughty what he wants. Let’s hope they manage to shoot themselves in the foot and lose their Norris-caliber talent.

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  1. peanutflower
    September 17, 2011

    So that’s why Canada hates Bettman. I always wondered. Now I know. Re Doughty, the Kings need to hold their position. Doughty is getting too big for his britches regardless of how good he is or how good he thinks he is. HIs agent should be slapped upside the head for encouraging this kind of nonsense. “Norris-calibre”. So what? He hasn’t won it yet.

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  2. John in Marpole
    September 18, 2011

    Thanks for this, Qris. I’ve long tired of the silliness of the hate, slurs and outrageous claims heaped upon Bettman by so many “fans” of the game. Now that one of the chief anti-Bettman loudmouths has lost his afternoon radio pulpit, perhaps people in Vancouver will rely less on someone else to tell them what to think about Bettman and the NHL as a whole and make up their minds based upon facts. The NHL game in 2011 is vastly improved from the 1990′s, and much of that improvement is the result of changes that have been made during Bettman’s tenure. Sure he comes off, and likely is, arrogant. Nobody has to like the man to recognize that he has had a hand in improving the NHL.

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