As Bad As It Gets
The perfect storm. That's about what this week has been for Gary Bettman.
The NHL's two areas of greatest vulnerability, the two issues that attract the most public scrutiny and open the league to charges of being structurally unsound and run by outlaws, have been played out in some of North America's largest media centres this week.
In one corner, you have the league-owned Phoenix Coyotes, quite possibly headed to Winnipeg because a public watchdog smells lies and deceit and law-breaking with the process being used to transfer the hockey club to a new, Chicago-based owner.
In the other, you have the violence issue, which this week was played out in an entirely different, nearly unprecendented fashion, with Montreal forward Max Pacioretty badly injured when run into a glass partition by giant Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara. Chara was penalized on the play, but not subjected to a suspension or fine. That left hockey fans in Montreal screaming bloody murder, and even had Montreal-based Air Canada complaining to the league and seemingly threatening to pull it's financial support.
While each of these situations - Phoenix and the Chara hit - can be logically argued in different ways, the overall impression for the league is instability and mayhem. The Coyotes mess has been hanging around for months and months, defying resolution, and leaving observers wondering if the league even remembers why it went down this pointless path in the first place. Now, the league looks even worse as it tries to intimidate the pro-taxpayer group called the Goldwater Institute into withdrawing its objections against putting millions more into the money pit that is the Coyotes in a deal that seems bizarre at the very least. By fighting Goldwater the NHL seems to be fighting the sheriff on behalf of the shady characters in the black hats.
With Chara, the decision not to suspend him is clearly defensible, although many disagree. Less defensible is that neither the NHL nor the NHLPA seems inclined to investigate why the dangerous area into which Pacioretty was driven is allowed to exist. But within the larger context of what has gone on this season, from Colin Campbell's email trail to Sidney Crosby's concussion to all the headshots and cheapshots and goon tactics and league-promoted fighting, for many this is a new extreme of a league that seems to want blood and more blood.
The NHL general managers will meet next week in Boca Raton, and it was at this time last year they were forced to deal with a similar storm. Phoenix was still in play, but then the hockey world was reeling over a blind side head shot by Matt Cooke on Marc Savard that may have destroyed Savard's career and forced the league to acknowledge an enormous, yawning crater in its rule book for the first time.
Yet a year later, the GMs will convene at a time when the Coyotes debacle won't go away and the violence in the league seems worse, not better.
There seems to have been a corporate decision made that keeping the Desert Dogs in place somehow is absolutely critical to the future of the league, possibly because with a new TV negotiation ongoing with U.S. networks Bettman and Co. aren't in the mood to be going to meetings armed with a map to show American executives exactly where Manitoba is. If Washington and Pittsburgh are the only franchises the league really seems interested in promoting, it's Phoenix that seems to be the third most-discussed franchise, and that's just strange.
On the violence front, the New York Islanders turned the league into a gong show several weeks ago and seem prepared to do so again if necessary. Boston and Montreal had a fight filled contest several weeks ago that the league seemed to celebrate. The league has taken a turn over the past two years, moving from considering whether fighting is worth keeping in the wake of the Don Sanderson tragedy to embracing fisticuffs and all forms of vigilante justice as part of the entertainment package it wants to sell. The players seem to be dedicated to raising the bar on violence every night, with their union still in disarry and seemingly unable to assert itself effectively on any of these important issues despite the hiring on Don Fehr. It's interesting that Mike Milbury, who once railed against the "pansification" of hockey, seems to have taken a sharp turn and now recognizes the utter nonsense that is at the heart of the NHL's goon mentality, nonsense propagated every Saturday night on Canada's national broadcaster.
If this is a perfect storm, it's important to note that Bettman has weathered such events time and time again. This won't bring him down. But it is remarkable that at a time when the other North American leagues should be attracting gobs of negative publicity over their impending labour troubles and potential stoppages in competition, it's the NHL that's getting all the bad ink and being widely described as a league in turmoil.