by Mike Chen on 10/26/09 at 01:00 PM ET
The NHL Fans’ Association (NHLFA) is a one-of-a-kind organization that tries to position itself as the voice of the NHL fan in terms of negotiations and direction of the league. With 30,000+ members, they’ve got a reasonably sized constituency, though one could argue that that’s a fraction of a percentage of the entire NHL fan base (some 21 million tickets were distributed last season and some 8 million watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final just in the US). One of the NHLFA’s goals for this season is to fire Gary Bettman. A lofty goal, considering that the only people that can fire Bettman are the 30 members of the Board of Governors, and they just gave him a contract extension not too long ago.
To try get their point across, the NHLFA is taking suggestions from its members for creative ways to start a Fire Bettman rally. While this will surely create some amusing fantasies probably worthy of a Will Ferrell movie, I’m guessing the NHLFA wants something that will realistically get noticed and carry some weight.
However, it’s times like this I try to remind folks that Bettman isn’t in charge of the NHL—the Board of Governors is. Bettman’s a first mate, assigned with certain operational and logistical duties, along with general counsel and negotiation, but he’s no evil emperor pulling the puppetmaster strings of all things hockey. For a refresher on what Bettman’s job description entails, check out this post from a few months back.
What could create change in the league’s culture? It’s change at the top—the ownership groups.
To see how drastic things could change, look at the Blackhawks since Bill Wirtz died. The team went from stone-age stubbornness to media-savvy and open-minded. It also removed one of the old-school albatrosses in BoG voting.
I think the NHLFA’s got their ammunition fired at the wrong target. The things that people hate about Bettman—his lawyer double-speak, his constant spinning of facts, etc.—are pretty much qualities that any business wants in its PR face (though I’m sure they’d prefer to have someone more eloquent). And while Bettman has his in-house tasks, one of the things he does is operate as the public mouthpiece of the league. Do you think the owners want him to say the obvious when things are bad? Of course not, because any blemish on the league potentially damages their team’s value, and they’re in this for the money.
I’ve said before that we probably don’t know Bettman’s true opinion on league issues. He carries out the will of the BoG, and he speaks to it publicly. Taking the flogging is part of his job. Firing him will only put another lawyer in that position—perhaps it’ll be someone who spins with a little more sincerity, but it’ll be spin nonetheless. He’s like a politician—even if you voted for a politician that you agree with, he or she is still a politician. They just operate on a different mindset than you or me because that’s their job, even though some may be more sincere than others.
So where should the NHLFA set its guns? Some owners (or ownership groups) are faceless entities; the public doesn’t know much about what direction they want to take the league. Others, like Jeremy Jacobs and Bill Wirtz before he passed, are notoriously old school and stubborn. Of course, some people like it and some people don’t. I don’t know enough about the individual owners to know which ones are progressive and which ones are conservative, but I’m guessing it goes across the spectrum. What I would suggest to the NHLFA, then, is to identify what each ownership group stands for in terms of how they view the league. Based on that, NHLFA members can identify the “villains” and try to create rallies to sell that team. Of course, it’s not as catchy or easy as “Fire Bettman” but ultimately it provides a more accurate representation of the problem (if you think there is one).
I imagine, though, that something along those lines won’t generate nearly as many amusing responses to the NHLFA’s call for “Fire Bettman” rally ideas.
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