A Thank You Letter to Commissioner Bettman
By Scott Lowe - MyHockeyRankings.com
Dear Commissioner Bettman,
First, before I get into what I really want to say, I have a confession. I was that guy. Actually, to some degree, I may still be that guy.
That’s right. It was at the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals. My team, the Washington Capitals, had just been swept by the juggernaut Detroit Red Wings. (Yes, kids. the Wings used to be REALLY good. Trust me). The public-address announcer introduced you as you strolled to center ice to award the greatest trophy in the world – the trophy I thought my team was never going to win – to Steve Yzerman and his teammates.
In my defense, everyone else booed, too. Caps fans, Red Wings fans – it didn’t matter. We all did it. Well, most of us anyway.
Oh, and that wasn’t the only time.
I’d be at a game and your face would pop up on the video board as you were sitting with Ted Leonsis in the owner’s box. More boos. But, you know, peer pressure. I might have even booed once or twice – or at least said something not so nice – when I saw you handing out the Cup on TV, being interviewed or giving one of your State of the Game presentations.
Maybe. I can’t remember exactly. Things get a little fuzzy when you turn 50.
And I think your name might been uttered in a less-than-flattering manner at other times, too. Like when an official made a bad call that hurt my team. I mean, you’re in charge of the game, so that had to be your fault, right? I also wasn’t a big fan of yours during the lockouts. Sorry, but when something you love gets taken away you have to blame somebody.
Yeah, I definitely wasn’t happy with you then. It’s all starting to come back to me now. Then there may have been some anger when you wouldn’t let the players go to the Olympics. And there may have been a few conspiracy theories I supported that were associated with the Caps’ annual early playoff exit.
But then something happened.
It was 20018. My team actually DID win the Stanley Cup against an expansion team that (a team that at the time I may or may not have thought you wanted to win so it would be the greatest story in the history of professional team sport). I digress.
The stars aligned, and the Caps won the Cup. By the way, you got booed again by fans whose team you helped be competitive in its first year when Washington won eight games as a start-up franchise. How could THOSE people boo YOU?
Then there was that surreal moment when you handed Alex Ovechkin the Stanley Cup. I was surprised to see how happy you seemed to be to hand it over to him; you actually appeared to be a little be moved to see one of the games longtime superstars and ambassadors finally have his moment. I think you even smiled when you shook his hand.
Wait, what was that? Did that really just happen?
Those were just fleeting thoughts as my family and I reveled in something we thought would never happen in our lifetimes, but that moment definitely changed some things for me personally. Over the next few years I found that I wasn’t mad at you as often. Yeah, the refs still screwed up, but the commissioner can’t control EVERYTHING.
Also, just between you and me, not letting the players go to the Olympics in 2018 probably helped the Caps win since many of their key players didn’t have that extra wear and tear on their bodies as they advanced deeper into the postseason. Of course, I didn’t realize that as I was watching a bunch of players I didn’t really know compete for the gold medal, but in hindsight it probably made a big difference.
Hindsight. It’s 20/20 right?
Monday night, as the clock on Game 6 wound down on Tampa Bay’s championship, I started thinking to myself that it would be funny if the game-operations folks piped in some fans booing as you were introduced to award the Stanley Cup as the culmination of a crazy 2020 postseason that no one of could ever have imagined. I’ve heard you talk about being booed before, and you have a great sense of humor about It, so I assumed you would actually enjoy something like that.
Then you appeared. No boos.
I was disappointed for a second, but the feeling left me quickly as I realized what was about to happen. Steven Stamkos, like Ovechkin a longtime team captain who had never raised the Cup, was in uniform despite being injured, and you were about to hand him the greatest trophy there is.
There’s no other moment like that in sports, and when guys like Ovechkin and Stamkos who have done so much for the league and been such great players and professionals finally get to raise it, you can’t help but get choked up no matter which team is being crowned.
What other sport elicits those types of emotions even when the enemy wins?
For that matter, speaking of Stamkos, would another coach in another professional sport even consider doing what Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper did by allowing an injured player to dress for a game during the championship finals – risking the balance of team chemistry and everything the team had worked for – to give his captain a chance to feel part of it? Not a chance.
But Cooper knows how the brains of hockey players work. Even if Stamkos couldn’t carry his weight or play at his usual high level, Cooper was certain that the jolt of energy it would give his team to have their captain on the bench and how the players would rally around him to make sure he wasn’t seen as the weak link or feel like he didn’t belong. A master psychologist, Cooper’s hunch was spot-on, and then Stamkos somehow scored a goal despite only playing in one period to help lift his team to an important Game 3 victory.
That stuff just doesn’t happen in other sports, and that’s what makes hockey so great – and so special. And you are the person who is charge of keeping it that way while also making sure that hockey remains relevant on the professional sports landscape by changing with the times and introducing it to new generations of fans.
In hindsight, in spite of all the boos over the years, you’ve done an amazing job despite inheriting a product that wasn’t considered relevant among other major professional sports in the United States when you took over.
When I was young, I got hooked on hockey in the early 1970s even though we didn’t have a team in the Washington area. I could watch one game a week on CBS (I think), and usually it was the Bruins, Rangers or Flyers playing. My dad loved Bobby Orr, so I did too. But I loved Peter Puck, all the cool equipment and the goalies in their crazy-looking masks and pads more.
Then D.C. got a team, and boy did we stink! The team posted a first-year record of 8-67-5, but we had professional hockey. I could go see games in person for $4.50, and we got to watch 15 more games a year on local TV. The national television contract went away, though, as no network wanted to pay to broadcast a niche sport that was far more popular in Canada and was only relevant in some regions of the U.S.
At one point for a season or two, one of the UHF TV stations (ask your parents what UHF means) in Baltimore, which at the time was home to an American Hockey League team, carried the Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts. So, in addition to the 15 Capitals’ games that were televised, every Saturday we would get the rabbit ears out, wrap them in tinfoil and stand on one leg while holding them together so we could watch hockey on a 16-inch television with snowy reception.
It didn’t matter, though, because it was hockey, and I couldn’t get enough. I also had a pretty nice radio on my nightstand, one that on clear nights would allow me to listen to play-by-play of games involving teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and sometimes even the Toronto Maple Leafs. Every now and then I could pick up a little bit of French play-by-play, which I always thought was really cool, and when I couldn’t find NHL games I could always listen to the Fort Wayne Comets or Cincinnati Stingers.
Where I grew up, we wouldn’t get cable television until the mid-80s. Back then, ESPN was in its infancy and was known for televising sports you couldn’t see anywhere else. NHL hockey was one of those sports. ESPN had a contract, and I would spend some weekends with my grandparents, who did have cable, and can remember how excited I was to be able to see the Minnesota North Stars take on the original Winnipeg Jets and that I could actually watch Stanley Cup Playoff games live.
The Caps traded for Hall of Fame defenseman Rod Langway in the early 80s, and hockey started to catch on in our area. They made the playoffs for something like 14 straight seasons, cable TV came to the neighborhood, tickets were harder to get and more than 50 games – including home games – were available for viewing on our regional cable sports network. Network television coverage of the NHL, other than on cable sports networks, still was a pipe dream in the U.S. at that point, however.
But none of that mattered to me. I was able to play hockey, get in the car and ride 15 minutes to see my favorite NHL team play in person and see 50 games a year on TV – even if home playoff games sometimes were blacked out. I was in heaven, but I didn’t know any better.
By then it was the late ‘80s. Hockey in the U.S. had failed in the South, with the Atlanta Flames moving to Calgary in 1980. In 1989 the NHL consisted of 21 teams divided into four divisions. Sixteen of those teams made the playoffs each year. There were teams in Hartford and Quebec, and the St. Louis Blues were considered the southern-most NHL franchise, although the warm-weather Los Angeles Kings technically were located farther south. In addition to Atlanta, NHL franchises had failed in Kansas City, Oakland and Colorado.
With no presence in the southern United States, no U.S. over-the-air network-television contract and youth hockey participation limited mostly to the Northeast and upper Midwest, the NHL – and hockey in general – just wasn’t considered a major American sport. Internationally, European countries such as Sweden and Finland had been sending players to the NHL since the late ‘70s, but it would still be several years before players from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations would be legally permitted to come to North America to play professionally.
You took over as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993, after working in the NBA under legendary commissioner David Stern. League revenue was $400 million when you started. Within 20 years it soared to more than $3 billion. Eight new franchises have been added during your tenure, which will bring the total to 32 teams when the puck drops on the 2021-22 season and the Seattle Kraken begin play.
You’ve overseen expansion into warm-weather markets such as Miami and Anaheim while also helping bring professional hockey to Nashville. Teams have relocated to Phoenix and Dallas on your watch, and you brought the most successful expansion team in the history of professional sports to, of all places, Las Vegas. The expansion of the NHL into more non-traditional markets has led to a boom in youth hockey participation across the United States, with the markets such as Dallas, St. Louis and Los Angeles now thriving and producing professional-level players on a regular basis.
In addition, the league has taken on a major international presence under your watch, with players coming to play in North America from 17 different countries, including Australia, the Netherlands, Latvia and France. More than 250 current active players hail from Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic and Slovokia, and during your tenure NHL teams have been played games in Finland, Austria, Sweden, England, Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ireland, Russia, Japan and China.
NHL players have competed in numerous Winter Olympics and will return to the Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2022 as part of the labor deal worked out between the league and the NHL Players Association that allowed teams to return to play and finish the 2019-20 season.
And that brings us to today.
The ease and speed with which you brokered the deal to get NHL players back on the ice and allow for a 2020 postseason that was as exciting and grueling as any playoffs ever contested is a reflection of the respect you’ve earned among the league’s players and ownership. It’s a level of respect that is well-deserved and has taken time, patience and hard work to build.
The NHL was a trend-setter in developing a plan to return to play that truly put the safety of the players, officials and various team and league staff members first. You paved the way and showed us what could be done, opening the door for other professional and college leagues to follow suit.
Thanks to your hard work, as well as the hard work and sacrifices made by so many involved with the NHL, not only did we get more than two months of incredible NHL Playoff action, but also we now have had NBA, MLB, MLS, NWSL, WNBA and now NFL games to watch at a time when people around the world sorely need something to look forward to help take their minds off life for a while.
The amount of care, thought, preparation, attention to detail, extra hours and money that went into pulling off the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs under unprecedented circumstances – as well as the difficult discussions, willingness to compromise and sacrifices that had to be made by everyone involved – is unimaginable. Surely you will be the first person to give credit to all the NHL employees beneath you, the players, the team front office personnel, the officials and the members of the hockey media who went the extra mile and made incredible sacrifices to provide us with the high-level product we have come to expect from the NHL. But none of that could have been accomplished without your vision, commitment to the fans and leadership.
I realize that there were financial implications driving some of the decision-making, too, and I have no issue with that. Nobody should. Professional sports are big business, and even with the tremendous growth of the league you have overseen as commissioner, the NHL still is not the NFL, NBA or MLB in terms of financial stability. For the good of the game from a business perspective, it was imperative that there be real closure to the 2019-20 season, including a competitive and legitimate postseason that crowned a true champion.
As fans, we need to understand and be willing to accept that. In the United States after so many years of having to hunt to find NHL games on TV, we get to watch hundreds or even more games on yearly basis across various platforms, including a national network. We can view at least a good portion of every single playoff game that’s contested each year.
There’s no doubting that we’ve become a little bit spoiled in recent years, but for us to continue receiving that kind of royal treatment the NHL had to make every effort to provide its network partners, and in turn the fans, with a quality product that would bring the 2019-20 season to an acceptable end.
And it turned out to be more than an acceptable end. Everybody won. The league, the fans and the networks. It was a true win-win-win, and we have you to thank for that.
As you strolled along the red carpet toward center ice in Edmonton to present the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup, I listened for the boos. There were none, and suddenly that seemed strangely appropriate. You didn’t deserve boos, even pre-recorded ones, in what may have been your finest hour as the keeper of our great game.
Thank you for making it happen and making our summer memorable for something other than a virus, racial injustice and hatred.
I wouldn’t have wanted to miss seeing Stamkos hoist the Cup for anything in the world.