In Defence of Gary Bettman and his NHL

by Kolby Solinsky

Editor, White Cover Magazine


Reactions are precisely that. They’re emotional and they feel right. And, in a tragic but also hilarious inverse relationship, the more emotional reactions are the more they feel right. Our emotions blind us, numb us, help us convince ourselves our instincts are right. And all we ever want to be is right.

So it’s going to be hard for many to pull back their hate for the NHL, certainly in regards to yesterday’s news – that the league, taking responsibility for its own decision, will not be participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea. Most hockey fans gave themselves their own ultimatum several months ago, even years ago, when it became clear that – at some point – the league would pull itself off the sport’s largest, most-watched stage. It’s almost like those same fans – myself included – were hoping the league would do what it just did… not because we wanted to see scabs on skates in the Olympics instead of the pros we already see every two nights, more because we wanted something to be mad at.

We wanted something to be mad it, in the age of rage porn and the circle-jerks of online debate and righteousness. And we wanted to be mad at Gary Bettman, because when you hear him talk too much this scary thing happens where you start to agree with him – or, at least, you understand his positions.

Bettman’s annual bouts with Ron MacLean on Hockey Night in Canada, during the All-Star Game intermissions, were the televised examples of this. You’d tune in and churn in just to see Gary get his ass kicked by MacLean, the human embodiment of Tim Horton’s – so Canadian and so loved, you almost don’t realize the taste is pretty bland and needs a heavy dose of diary to be enjoyable – and you’d come away thinking Gary got his ass kicked, whether he did or not. And most times, he didn’t. Because the commish is the commish. The NHL is the NHL. It’s fun to fight the man. But the house always wins. And if you hate that, why did you enter the casino? Why did you sit down, why did you play your chips?

The NHL could have gone to the Olympics if it wanted to. You have to believe that. The league sees what we all see – and I’m sure the league, and the many execs at the top of it, wanted to watch the best of the best battle for the podium once again. As fans, like us.

So yeah, it’s fair to blame them. It’s fair to blame Gary. Because, you know, they could have just gone.

But it’s not fair to only blame them. It’s not fair to only blame Gary. Or to even mostly blame them.

“If you wanted NHL players in the Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee is the reason they’re not going in 2018,” wrote Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy, this morning. “It’s OK to feel all of these emotions … as long as, at some point, you realize that what the heart wants doesn’t always square with what the head understands.”

In his excellent summation of the situation, Wyshynski winds through the expected anger of disappointed fans, as I tried and probably failed to do above. And he dissuades them as they are – throw-away knee-jerks of the hurt and wounded. Wysh also rightly compares the IOC – the International Olympic Committee – to the NCAA, another supposedly well-doing mafia of ‘amateur’ sport that we all seem fine to ridicule and rip apart for its handling of student-athletes and blossoming stars.

“The ridiculous profits made by the NCAA on the backs of student-athletes have earned it harsh criticism. They put in the time, assume the risk and in exchange, get their basic costs covered while being told it’s an “honor” to participate in the NCAA tournament… The IOC is like the NCAA, except instead of the charade that it’s an educational venture, they pretend that a swimming relay can end all wars and a new Velodrome is what your city really needed.

Every time the Olympics swings through a new city or new country, it does so on the adage that there are serious and very real economic and cultural benefits for those locations. Sometimes, this is true: the Winter Games were here in Vancouver seven years ago and it was a goddamn blast. It was one of the times of my life. I wouldn’t wish it never happened. But hey, let’s try our hand at some humility… what if I don’t know anything? What if I’m wrong? What if, as much fun as the fun was, it was only fun?

Did the Games give Vancouver any real benefit, any lasting and concrete economic boost? I can’t imagine anyone’s traveling here to British Columbia, almost a decade after the fact, to see where the thawed Olympics were once held? I doubt it.

And perhaps those two weeks did give my hometown some exposure, some international legitimacy. But you could argue that Vancouver always had that legitimacy – that it was already known as a beautiful city, that it was already attractive to expats or real estate investors from Asia, that it already had a name and a good rep. I can’t imagine the Olympics has done a lot for Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, or Sochi. And if it has, if there has been any increased investment or tourism, can you really argue those benefits have outweighed the insane costs of throwing the sporting world’s most expensive party?

None of this matters to the NHL, necessarily, but it is important to keep in mind. Because the same whiffs of reason – the Olympics will help grow the gamethe benefits outweigh the costshame on you if you stand in the Olympics’ way – are used against the league, applied in a sort of verbal hostage tactic, a pre-emptive threat from fan to overlord, like a customer screaming at the woman behind the cashier.

And yet, there’s no real proof behind the theory.

“The League has participated in the Olympics five times and has never seen any objective evidence of a positive impact on the business or sport,” writes Nick Cotsonika, in an article unfortunately published for NHL.com (because I know it’s hard to trust the writer’s push when it’s clearly more league PR than it is organic).

“In many ways, (the NHL) has seen a negative impact.

“Nagano was not a boon for the League or for hockey in general… The 2006 Torino and 2014 Sochi Olympics weren’t boons. The 2002 Salt Lake City and 2010 Vancouver Olympics were better — each culminating in a gold-medal game between Canada and the United States on North American ice — but weren’t boons either.

“Hockey is not much different from, say, skiing or swimming. Die-hard fans love the sport the way they love it all the time. Casual fans get into it for a couple of weeks and then forget about it the week afterward. Did you follow Michael Phelps during the Summer Olympics? Do you follow his sport in between?”

As Cotsonika writes, the NHL was never given any kind of partner status with the Olympic, never even given the chance to re-post or re-publish highlights or participate in any way – “You name it, the NHL hasn’t been able to show it,” he writes. “How does that help promote the League or grow the game?”

It’s understandable and easy to cheer and whoop-whoop behind the players who hate this decision, especially ones like Erik Karlsson and Henrik Lundqvist, who responded to yesterday’s news with froth foaming from their lips. And we probably want to see what will happen if Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrmo, and Braden Holtby take their owners’ immunity and flee in the middle of their season to Korea in 11 months. That would create some level of chaos and we love chaos. It’s fun to see and fun to follow – and the NHL has been on the less-popular side of it several times before, most notably last year when John Scott captained his All-Star team and took the MVP award in what then felt like a giant middle finger to Gary Bettman or whoever else you think tried to keep him off the roster.

But these are all emotions. That’s all they are.

NHL players won’t be at the Olympics, not unless they revolt. There are many reasons for that. And if you’re looking for a bad guy, I suggest you pick the right one.