Myers: Lockout is latest entry in Gary Bettman's resume of failure
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Gary Bettman's first visit to Minnesota as commissioner of the NHL was a tense affair.
He'd agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Hobey Baker Award's annual banquet shortly after getting appointed to the NHL's top job on Feb. 1, 1993.
Two months later, when he got to the Decathlon Athletic Club (long since torn down to make way for a hotel and waterpark), Norm Green had announced that the Minnesota North Stars were bound for Dallas after 26 seasons at Met Center, and anti-NHL sentiment was running at a fever pitch 'round these parts.
Insisting that a personal security detail accompany him everywhere he went, Bettman appeared before a packed house of hockey folk and local sports media gathered in Bloomington, ostensibly to honor Maine freshman Paul Kariya, who had won college hockey's top honor that year.
But in truth, the majority of the locals wanted to see the new boss of this hockey league that was en route to vacating one of the nation's three or four true hockey hotbeds, and ask him how and why he could allow such a travesty.
Bettman delivered an obviously rehearsed address expressing "regret" that the North Stars were moving, but claiming despite all his power and might atop the hockey world, there was nothing he could or would do to change it.
When asked directly that night about the prospects of the NHL's return to Minnesota someday, Bettman offered a shrug and a noncommittal, "Well, we'll see."
Amid all of the bitterness expressed by local hockey fans during those dark days was a common opinion, that the NHL needed Minnesota much more than Minnesota needed the NHL.
So, Minnesota went seven seasons without NHL hockey, save for a few poorly-attended preseason and neutral site games at Target Center. That meant we got to skip Bettman's first ill-timed lockout.
In the early summer of 1994, after 54 agonizing years made less bearable by the harsh spotlight of the New York City media, the New York Rangers bested Vancouver in a seven-game Stanley Cup Finals, bringing a hockey championship parade back to lower Manhattan's famed Canyon of Heroes for the first time since pre-World War II.
With Michael Jordan off riding a minor league baseball team's bus throughout the South, a Sports Illustrated cover story famously proclaimed that the NHL had eclipsed the NBA in the hearts and minds of American sports fans.
Bettman pounced on all that momentum in an odd way, leading a lockout that wiped out half of the 1994-95 season. When hockey finally reappeared on the sporting landscape, the NBA's dominance was back and the dead puck era had begun, with Jacques Lemaire finding success in New Jersey by employing a clogging "soccer on ice" brand of hockey
as ugly as it was boring.
In late June of 1995, Bettman handed the Cup to Lemaire's Devils amid a rain of boos, after doing nothing while Devils ownership openly plotted and threatened to move the franchise to Nashville. Sound familiar? Well, aside from the "winning the Stanley Cup" part?
By the late 1990s, it was clear the NHL indeed needed Minnesota more than Minnesota needed the NHL, so Bettman returned, with Lemaire behind the bench of an expansion team in St. Paul.
The Wild sold every ticket available for nearly a decade, despite only one real playoff
run and another Bettman lockout, this time wiping out an entire season in 2004-05. That work stoppage came on the heels of the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Cup, and bringing true hockey excitement to the booming youth sports world in Florida.
With a year's layoff, that excitement faded quickly. The one positive to come from the lost season was rules changes that effectively ended the dead puck era and brought a more high-scoring exciting game back to the 30 NHL rinks.
Expansion into non-traditional hockey markets, of questionable success, has been a hallmark of Bettman's tenure atop the NHL. Cup parades have been held in Los Angeles, Dallas, Anaheim, Raleigh and Tampa, but franchises in South Florida, Columbus, Phoenix and Nashville have floundered.
The Coyotes have been owned by the NHL for the last few years, desperate for a real owner that will keep them in Arizona, despite Canadian fans clamoring for another team in greater Toronto or a re-entry into the Quebec City market. The Atlanta Thrashers lasted just 11 seasons before moving to Winnipeg, making the Peachtree City the only place in America that has lost sports franchises to both Alberta and Manitoba.
By the spring of 2012, even in hockey-mad Minnesota, the excitement for the Wild had waned to the point where sellouts were a rarity, and owner Craig Leipold knew a big move was needed to win back the fans. He made the biggest move of the offseason, and likely in Minnesota sports history, signing coveted free agents Ryan Suter and Zack Parise to 13-year contracts worth $98 million each.
But with the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire, Bettman led a charge for an immediate rollback of those salaries and every other one signed by NHL players. This past weekend, owners clamored to sign players to more than $200 million worth of contracts in a 48-hour span.
Then, at 11 p.m. Central on Saturday night, claiming poverty despite record revenues throughout the league, Bettman again locked out the players, completing his own personal work-stoppage hat trick.
Last season featured a stirring two-month playoff saga, with Phoenix awakening hockey fever in the desert via a run to the Western Conference finals, the Rangers getting America's most important media market back in the game with a fantastic regular season, and the Kings finally bringing the Cup to Los Angeles, reigniting a love for hockey in Southern California first fueled by Wayne Gretzky a generation ago.
Free agent signings like those in Minnesota had fans excited for the new season in multiple markets. And by the time this lockout ends, in a few weeks, or by Thanksgiving, or New Year's, or next season, the momentum and excitement will surely be gone, once again.
No bodyguards were needed for Bettman in 2004 when he came here for the All-Star Game weekend and gave a triumphant press conference lauding the success of the latest round of expansion, especially in Minnesota, where the Wild were coming off a trip to the Western Conference finals. Another lockout was looming, but Bettman shrugged
it off, sure that they players would cave quickly. They didn't, and a full season was lost.
Amid all of the commissioner's feel-good platitudes about the Wild, St. Paul and the self-proclaimed "State of Hockey," the press conference microphone came to me and Bettman was asked directly, "In the end, did the NHL need Minnesota more than Minnesota needed the NHL?"
Showing the true calling of the Ivy League lawyer that he is, the commissioner ducked my question, of course, but responded with another platitude.
"We came back here because it was the right thing to do," Bettman said.
Amid his ever-growing resume of failure, that's one rare time the commissioner can at least claim to have done the right thing for hockey.