The NHL Leadership Continues to Turn their Backs on Hockey Fans

CH. 1- The NHL's Leadership has taken the League in the Wrong Direction

So the NHL has decided to put a team in Las Vegas, Nevada. Yet another non-traditional hockey market, but this time it’s different! It’s a hedonistic paradise in the middle of the desert. Sounds like a great place for some hockey to me.

Sarcasm aside, I have a problem with what the NHL has done here; but it’s not about this one move expanding to Las Vegas. My problem lies with much broader issues that have been occurring across the NHL landscape for the past 20-25 years, and this latest Las Vegas expansion announcement is just another chapter.

When I was a kid I would cry when the Toronto Maple Leafs lost- now I can’t stand them. Hockey was king in my life as a youngster, but my interest in the NHL has consistently declined to the point where I hardly tune in at all, and it’s not because I like hockey less- I still love hockey, but the NHL is not what it used to be.

We’ve seen the NHL fall from its glory of the 1980s and early 1990s, to a point where it no longer moves the needle in the United States, other than in a few passionate markets. I touched on these feelings in the article I wrote entitled “The Fundamental Flaw in the NHL’s Standings”.

Over the course of this 3-part article, it’s my goal to shed light on how terribly the NHL leadership has failed hockey fans over the past two decades. The NHL owners, Gary Bettman, and the other decision makers involved have diminished a once great League and have disregarded the feelings of their fans over the past 20+ years. In doing so, they have killed the NHL’s popularity, and ultimately hurt all hockey constituents by taking the League in a direction that has been far less profitable than it should have been.

A common mistake that hockey fans make is directing their anger at Gary Bettman, when the frustration should be directed at the NHL owners. Don’t get me wrong, I was delighted at how intensely Bettman was booed in San Jose a few weeks back when he presented the Stanley Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins. However the truth is that the NHL commissioner acts on behalf of the owners and ownership groups. It’s well known that Gary Bettman is disliked, (although hated would likely be a more accurate word), by the large majority of hockey fans.

This begs the question: If most hockey fans hate Gary Bettman, why does he still have his job after 20+ years? Why have the owners not fired him?

The answer to this question is that Gary Bettman is mostly a puppet for the Billionaire owners of the 30 teams. His job is to do as they wish. One of the most important services that all commissioners provide for their employers, the franchise owners, is that they willingly become the ‘punching-bag’ for the frustration and anger of the fans. They take the brunt of the criticism from disgruntled fans, and the billionaire owners somehow ‘skate’ free and stay out of the limelight. We as fans are misdirecting our anger at Gary Bettman.

An Aside about Roger Goodell…

The same can be said about Roger Goodell. That’s why the 32 NFL owners pay Goodell $44 million dollars per season…and no that’s not a typo- he actually made $44 million in the 2013 season. That’s double what the highest paid football player, Aaron Rodgers, made that season. Click here for the Yahoo Sports article I’m referencing.

So why the hell does Goodell make so many millions, especially considering the fact that most fans passionately dislike him?!?!

It’s not because he’s revolutionizing football or the NFL. It’s because he is perceived to be the decision maker and takes all the heat, when in fact, he is mostly just serving as the owners’ punching-bag and buffer between themselves and the fans. He, along with all commissioners, likely have far less power than fans would assume.

The NFL owners approved the relocation of the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles 30-2 in the relocation vote. Yet, St. Louis fans have been directing a lot of their hatred towards Goodell, which is exactly what the 30 owners who voted to relocate the Rams want.

Back to the NHL Leadership…

Since Gary Bettman took over as commissioner on February 1st, 1993, the big-picture focus has been to expand the League to non-traditional hockey markets, and in some cases, truly non-hockey markets. I’m not overly critical regarding what the NHL tried to do in the 1990s- they attempted to expand the game across the continent. Where I have a huge problem though, is that over the past 15 years, like a group of petulant children, the NHL has refused to acknowledge that this strategy has largely failed and then adapted to the reality that they may have got this big-picture vision wrong.

With the failures and struggles of many southern and non-traditional markets, it’s incredibly tone-deaf to expand to Las Vegas at this time. Especially when there are 3 obvious places where it appears likely that an NHL team would be successful long-term, and more importantly, there is a true hockey fanbase. Southern Ontario, Quebec City, and Seattle- in that order. The NHL is still trying to force-feed hockey to the Southern US, when they should abandon their 25-year strategy of putting square pegs in round holes. The fact is that hockey has not taken in a lot of these non-traditional places.

It’s as though they are blindly committed to establishing a Legacy, without taking a step back and looking at the big-picture. What they have been entrusted by millions of hockey fans to do is make the NHL great- and bring the NHL to the places where there are passionate hockey fans.

Here’s an analogy: It’s like a business that is so obsessed with gaining new customers, that they’ve completely lost sight of satisfying their actual customers. That’s a recipe for going belly-up and bankrupt in most industries. Lucky for the NHL Leadership they aren’t selling office supplies or widgets, and people still love hockey, in spite of their incompetence.

Many of the League’s non-traditional markets don’t have enough hockey interest to sustain an NHL team long-term, especially through an era of losing seasons. Sure there is enough interest in these non-traditional markets to sustain a team during the exciting 5-year expansion phase, and when the team is competing for a championship. I have no doubt that the Las Vegas team will be highly successful in their first 5 years- but what about 15 years in, when they've had 7 straight losing seasons?  

A franchise in a league like the NHL needs to be sustainable for many decades, not just for a few years at the beginning, and then only when the team is really good on the ice.

Sports Education