Thursday, March 30, 2006

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is by far the most hated and most criticized commissioner in professional sports, and for the most part, for good reason. The NHL has undergone two embarrassing work-stoppages, attendance has dropped to pitifully low levels for many of the league’s franchises, and the league has almost completely fallen off the national radar.

All of those are valid criticisms and will certainly be a black mark on Bettman’s legacy, but I also can’t help but wonder if history will judge Bettman more kindly than his peers have. It may not seem obvious, especially with pro hockey at an all-time low point in terms of respectability, but Bettman could be the Harry Truman of sports commissioners: hated in office, and loved afterwards.

One of the biggest complaints about Bettman’s work as an NHL commissioner was the expansion of the league to “non-traditional hockey venues. The decision to allow franchises in Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Anaheim, Columbus, Nashville, Florida, and Dallas among others was controversial, and largely considered to be a failure. The empty seats in those cities seemed to confirm that. But Bettman’s big gamble may finally be starting to pay off.

Here’s a quick trivia question. The VOSHA Mustangs won the 14 and under Tier II national championship last season. Where is that team from?

A. Northern Minnesota
B. Suburban Boston
C. Phoenix, Arizona

If you said C, you would be correct. It’s no coincidence that most of those kids were 4 or 5 years old and just starting to choose what sports they wanted to play when the Coyotes moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg. The Tier I champions from last year came from St. Louis, another non-traditional hockey town that is slowly starting to become another hockey hotbed.

The growth of youth hockey in NHL cities isn’t limited to just Phoenix or St. Louis. Two of college hockey’s most dangerous scorers, Brett Sterling and Robbie, both of whom will be playing in the NHL in a few years, are direct products of the Los Angeles hockey-boom caused by Wayne Gretzky and the success of the Kings. Earl and Sterling may have been considered anomalies, but their former youth program, the California Wave have five more alumni already committed to play collegiate hockey in the next two years, and many more players that should receive juniors, college, and pro interest in the coming years.

Pittsburgh may have a long history in the NHL, but the franchise has struggled financially recently, which has led many to call for the NHL to euthanize the team. What most fail to notice, however, is that Pittsburgh is starting to reap the residual benefits of the Mario Lemiuex and Jaromir Jagr era. It was almost unheard of for a player from western Pennsylvania to play high-level hockey ten years ago. But today, players from the Pittsburgh area are becoming more and more common. Pittsburgh native Ryan Malone is in his third NHL season, while another Pittsburgh native, Bill Thomas, made his NHL debut earlier this week. Other young players, such as Dartmouth’s Grant Lewis and National Development Team member C.J. Severyn have very real NHL aspirations.

NHL scouts have to become as familiar with AAA programs like the Dallas Stars, San Jose Jr. Sharks, and Colorado Outlaws as they are with the high schools of Minnesota and the prep schools of the east coast.

Kids in western Pennsylvania are growing up dreaming of quarterbacking a powerplay for the Penguins rather than starting at quarterback for the Steelers. Kids in southern California are giving up their hoop dreams, for a sport where any player over 6 feet tall is considered big. Potential linebackers and tight ends are becoming big, bruising defenseman in Texas. That’s the kind of success that doesn’t show up in an attendance figure or a television rating, and Gary Bettman is a large reason for it.

The effect of this will help the NHL in three ways. First of all, it increases the overall hockey talent pool. If more kids that are playing hockey that means that there will be more talented players. The faster and more skilled the game becomes, the more attractive it will be to viewers.

Secondly, it means the NHL will see more locally born and bred players. Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are great players, and may save their respective franchises, but could you imagine the hype and interest surrounding them if they had actually grown up in Pittsburgh or Washington? It would be like the hype and excitement of LeBron James getting to play in front of his hometown fans every night.

Finally, it familiarizes fans with the game. Why is hockey so popular in Minnesota? Why is football so popular in Texas? Why is basketball so popular in Indiana? Because it’s the same game that everyone in that state grew up playing. They understand the rules and the strategy and the nuances of the game. The NHL has found out how difficult it is to get new fans to learn and love the game on the fly. But it’s not that hard at all if you grow up with the sport.

On the surface, professional hockey looks to be in serious trouble here in North America, and for the short-term, it probably will be. But those short-term sacrifices to his reputation that Commissioner Gary Bettman has made will pay huge dividends to the NHL and to his legacy in the long-term.


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