NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joked about not being the most popular guy in town — any town — when he spoke at the City Club of Chicago breakfast Friday at Maggiano’s at Clark and Grand.
“If I get a little light-headed, it’s because I’m not used to hearing all this clapping,” Bettman said to laughter at the sold-out event. “I was in Las Vegas in November to announce the team name for [the expansion Golden Knights]. I get introduced, and I started getting booed. And I’m actually chuckling to myself. An expansion team was just granted. What possibly could they be complaining about?”
When it comes to popularity among sports commissioners, the NBA’s Adam Silver is the only one who truly fits the category, with MLB’s Rob Manfred — who has the advantage of not being Bud Selig — in second place. Bettman ranks ahead of only the NFL’s almost universally loathed Roger Goodell — which is like saying the Coyotes rank only ahead of the pathetic Avalanche in the NHL.
The upcoming tempest over the NHL’s participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018 is the latest quandary that likely will sink Bettman’s popularity to a new low. Thanks to Bettman’s initiative, NHL players have participated in the Olympics since 1998. It has been a boon for the players and fans. But Bettman reiterated that “if nothing changes, I don’t see any way we’re participating” in the Olympics.
What changed? According to Bettman, NHL owners “overwhelmingly” have come to the conclusion that they’re not getting any return for shutting down their league in the prime of its season. It’s not worth the hassle of having a compressed schedule, risking players getting injured and re-starting the season in late February. The only benefit is that the players and fans love it.
“The league isn’t anti-Olympics. Clubs are anti-disruption-to-the-season,” Bettman said. “To disappear for almost three weeks in February, when there’s no football, there’s no baseball — it’s only basketball and us. There’s no programming for the NHL Network, NHL.com, for all our social-media platforms. We just disappear.”
Bettman wants a much better deal. The players enjoy participating, and fans enjoy watching. But what’s in it for the owners?
“When you piece it all together, you say, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” he said. “We’ve done it five times, and while it was my idea initially and it seemed like a good idea at the time, I can’t tell you there’s any tangible benefit, particularly here in North America, of doing it. We are shut out of the Olympics. We cannot promote with the Olympic rings logo. We don’t get highlights. We can’t do anything other than let our players show up. That has been a bone of contention.”
The International Olympic Committee’s decision last year to not pay the expenses for NHL players to participate — including insurance — seems to have been the final straw.
“If they don’t value our participation, what are we doing?” Bettman said.
The IOC since has “retreated” on that position, Bettman acknowledged, but that didn’t cheer him up. It remains to be seen if there’s any deal sweet enough to change the NHL’s mind.
“I don’t know [what it would take],” Bettman said. “It’s something I would have to go back to the clubs on. Because the clubs are overwhelmingly negative on the subject.
“It’s not incumbent on us … to figure out a solution. If somebody has a notion as to what might make sense, we’ll listen. I’m not sure it’ll make the difference, but we’ll listen.”
Bettman sounds like he has made his decision and is willing to live with the consequences of disappointed players and unhappy fans. This isn’t a popularity contest, and he’s comfortable with that. He never forgets he was hired, not elected.
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