With this first glitter of optimism we’ve received in weeks—generated, perhaps tellingly, by meetings where the NHL Commissioner and NHLPA head were both absent—I’ve found myself thinking about the prospect of seeing hockey this year. Up until today I’d just about given up on that notion. Goes to show how even the cynical like me can be bent by a mildly positive though largely ambiguous headline.
It also speaks to how little we fans may expect from either side in terms of PR, and how little we received. I’ve never felt like either side was invested in the feelings of the fans, except to the degree they could manipulate fan sentiment as leverage in their negotiations. Such is the magnifying effect of the 24 hour news cycle. What is a group of rich people fighting over how much richer one side gets to be than the other turns into the same group of rich people biting the hand that feeds them. Given how badly this thing has been cocked up, I can’t help but think some kind of overture has to be made to the fans to get them back on side; I’ve never heard people sound as cynical as they have these past two months.
Which makes the following question both a bit compelling and also completely ludicrous: is the best thing the league can do to make amends with the fans to axe Bettman?
It would be succumbing to an unfair stereotype—Bettman answers to the owners, after all. But consider that 1) Bettman is a convenient stand-in for the greediness of the owners and the brokenness of this negotiation process; 2) There are many skilled, cut-throat former lawyers who could play the role of facilitator and administrator, and 3) maybe it’s healthy to have a little bit of turnover at the top, especially when your guy has been in his role for almost 20 years. This track record of lockouts is not synonymous with Bettman’s track record. For better or for worse, Bettman is the brand.
How many more years do you want this guy booed every time he steps up to a microphone, be it at the draft or handing out the Stanley Cup? This is supposed to be the face of ownership, the powerful mask of the league itself. Fair or not, Bettman’s as divisive a figure as you’ll find in professional sports, and after yet another lockout I can’t imagine there aren’t enough owners in that board room to do the ultimate shanking in blaming this whole fiasco on him. They could wash their hands of the whole situation and get back to the business of making money.
Unlikely to happen, of course, as Bettman has created the ultimate insiders’ club. And there’s nothing more appealing to the rich white man who has everything than membership in an exclusive club. He’s ingrained himself with the league’s identity. But we might be starting to see the beginning of a fan backlash that could be counteracted by the appearance, if certainly not the reality, of regime change.