Maybe it’s only people of older generations, of which I’m a part, who still perceive the position of “commissioner” as some sort of custodian of a particular sport. Even though we know in our minds that all they’re just the hand of the owners, and exist to ensure maximized profits, our hearts still cling to a very fuzzy, dark, and long-gone tenet that they are supposed to actually balance all sides and do what’s best for the game and not the business.
I don’t know when that was last actually the case in any sport. Fay Vincent? The biggest piece of evidence it was him was how desperately MLB owners wanted him shitcanned before the CBA negotiations of 1993-1994. They replaced him with the overwhelmed, under-charismatic, and completely ghoulish Bud Selig, who was himself a fucking owner at the time.
I don’t know that hockey has ever had a commissioner that cared about the game or knew what it meant if they did. Gary Bettman has been on this job so long that’s really all we have to study. Few barely remember John Ziegler Jr., who wouldn’t have been able to spell the title of the job he had if you spotted him “ommissioner.”
Whatever hope we used to have that commissioners served any other higher purpose than merely adding to the portfolios of the already incomprehensibly rich has been stamped, squashed, and crushed by the likes of Rob Manfred or Roger Goodell. Put anything in front of them that’s not about expanding revenues, and they get the same look as any politician does when asked a question they don’t have a prepared answer for. Because that’s all they are.
Gary Bettman provided the latest evidence of all that today, when he and his right-hand stooge Bill Daly had a press conference about the Blackhawks’ scandal. You’d think Bettman and Daly would have access to some of the best crisis managers and PR people money can buy. Either they ignored that advice, didn’t seek it, or decided that money could instead have gone to some owner’s third yacht. Because it really couldn’t have gone worse.
Here are some highlights:
You don’t need to read between the lines to get to what Bettman is really saying. That is, “The Blackhawks draw a lot of water in this league. The Devils and Coyotes don’t draw shit, Lebowski.”
The Hawks are perhaps the biggest team success story under Bettman’s watch, going from complete afterthought and embarrassment to the league’s biggest draw, and earning the league some of its biggest playoff ratings in history. While Bettman didn’t have anything to do with that — come to think of it, neither did any of the Hawks’ brass now out on their asses and forever shamed, aside from Joel Quenneville, who is also out on his ass and shamed but could at least claim an influence on the success — Bettman was happy to reap the benefits. He’s not about to go too harshly after a team whose success and relative lack of controversy meant more money for everyone, which, in turn, meant more job security for him.
The whole presser smacked of, “Well it was their problem, not ours,” and “I’m not in charge of the entire sport.” Perhaps the most sickening outtake:
A reminder: Aldrich spent nine months in prison for assaulting a child while employed at a job he presumably got because he was able to burnish his resume by saying he worked for an NHL team. Bettman needs more info. Which is code for he needs more time for all this to blow over.
Here’s a pretty good indication of how much Bettman knows about which way the wind blows in his sport:
Off the top of my head: Graham James, the Hawks, Patrick Kane, Kyle Dubas, Nick Cousins, the Predators for like a decade now, Drew Doughty, Bill Guerin, Mario Lemieux, Thomas Adrahtas, Lynn Seibel, and BU all come to mind. That’s not even close to what the actual list could be, just the somewhat recent allegations of sexual assault that most hockey fans can name.
Not only does Kyle Beach’s case get filed under that, but also filed under the sport’s problems with homophobia and with what qualifies as being “good in the room.” Players on that team can’t even agree on what they knew or what they said about it at the time, though Beach is pretty damn sure about what he heard. What he didn’t hear was anyone stepping up for him, because that would have made anyone who did so the first hockey player in history to actually stand up against homophobic slurs and remarks on the ice and in the dressing room.
Hockey requires, and has always required, silence. Players are afraid to wear loud shoes to the rink for fear of hearing it from their teammates, who are taught from the earliest age “team over all,” and dressing loudly means you are putting yourself over that. You can imagine how they handle things more serious than sneakers. Even if the Hawks had handled everything correctly at the time — fired Aldrich, went to the police — it would not have been a slam dunk that Beach wanted charges filed then. Simply because that would be a label he would carry through his career, and every organization in the NHL would have been wary of the “distraction” it might have caused in the dressing room and with his teammates.
Nothing is going to change until players feel that results on the ice aren’t the only thing, not just the most important thing. Hockey lives for its label as “ultimate team sport,” as every player gets a shift, every player can make a difference. It lives for it to the detriment of everything else. Allowing individualism also means allowing players to raise issues that concern them about what’s going on within the room and organization, and standing for what’s right no matter the waves. For Bettman to claim the culture is fine and this is an outlier is just indicative of either how naive or how uncaring to the root of it all he is.
But again, Bettman isn’t paid to be a crisis manager. He isn’t paid to greatly change the culture. He’s there to make TV contracts and marketing partnerships, and lean on cities for new arenas. That’s it. And he does that well. He got the owners a sweet new TV deal just this year. He got the players to agree to a flat salary cap for years. He’s won three lockouts for the owners. That’s his charge. However awful all of this has been, where’s it going to affect the NHL’s bottom line? The Hawks will sell less tickets, but that might have as much to do with the team being utter dogshit than this, and that they can recover that part of it. Either way, it’s a drop in the bucket for the league overall.
Bettman doesn’t care how he looks. He revels in that fact now. So he can be a jackass in front of a microphone and the press, and it matters not. His bosses are happy.