Gary Bettman has been the Commissioner of the NHL since 1993 and in my opinion is the worst commissioner in the history of sports. Under his watch the NHL has gone from one of the big four sports in America to a niche sport that has to fight to have its games televised. He has presided over three work stoppages, two that cut seasons in half and one the eliminated an entire season. He has instituted rule changes that have taken the teeth out of the game and wonders why more players are getting hurt. He refuses to change things that will improve the on ice product and can’t figure out why the sport’s popularity is fading. He needs to be replaced as soon as possible and pretty much anyone would be better. As a matter of fact I would be interested in filling the position. If I were hired there are quite a few things I would change.
One of my main goals would be to repair the relationship between the NHL and the player’s union. Currently it is so toxic that neither side thinks they can trust what the other is saying and that needs to change. The players need to realize that the owners have to make their money and that without them there wouldn’t be a league to play in. The owners need to realize that the players want to make as much money as they can as quickly as they can, before their careers are over and without them their wouldn’t be a product to put on the ice. In other words both sides cannot exist without each other. I think it is totally ridiculous that relations between Bettman and whoever is running the union are so bad that there have been three lockouts since 1994. The management side of the NHL and the owners has never really accepted the union and it is my belief that Bettman has tried to break the union every time the collective bargaining agreement has come up for renewal. The NHL made 4.1 billion dollars last year and is scheduled to make even more this year. I see no reason why there isn’t enough money to go around and as long as neither side is too greedy everybody should be able to get along. While my ideas might be considered radical I think they will make the NHL a better product and maybe return some of the luster to a sport that was fallen from its once lofty perch.
My biggest complaint over the years has finally been addressed; moving the Red Wings to the Eastern Conference. I can’t believe it took this long to move them but I’m happy about it. Bettman could have done a better job and re-aligned the entire NHL and made travel a minor issue. My plan would put Montreal, Toronto, Boston, New York Rangers, Detroit and Chicago, all of the original six teams in one division; I would put Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the New York Islanders in another division. The final Eastern Conference division would be Ottawa, Washington, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay. In the Western Conference one division would be comprised of Minnesota, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis and Dallas. The second division would be Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Colorado and Phoenix and the third division would be Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles. If you examine that setup travel would mostly be within one time zone or at worst a few games one time zone away. I would also change the number of games in a season from 82 to 75 and set it up differently. Teams would play non-divisional conference foes twice, once on the road and once at home. They would play divisional opponents eight times, four at home four on the road, except for the six team division which would play each other seven times rotating every year which team would have the extra home game. That would add up to 62 games for the divisions with five teams and 65 games for the six team division and have teams play clubs from the other conference to make up the difference.
I would also change the playoff system and the number of teams that qualify for the post-season. Rather than the best eight teams in each conference making the playoffs, I would have the three division winners and the next best two teams qualify. I would give the team with the best record in the conference a bye in the first two round to make up for the odd number of teams but I would keep all series as the best of seven. That would mean if you were a conference winner you would play between eight and fourteen games to win the cup and every other team would play between sixteen and 28 games. Lowering the number of qualifying teams and giving a two round bye to the conference winner will make the regular season mean something, which would be a great change from the current system where more than half the teams in the league make the post-season and teams go through periods where they coast, this would end that and force teams to play all out all season long.
There are two rule changes I would tackle if I were Commissioner. The first rule I would change would be the instigator rule, I think that is one of the main reasons players are getting hurt more often recently. If that rule is removed the players will police themselves and the number of illegal hits and other incidents will go down. If players have to worry about dealing with enforcers and the enforcers don’t have to worry about an extra two minutes the game will return to a level of incidents from years past. I would also change the way goalies are treated outside the crease. I wouldn’t make them completely fair game but if they’re outside the crease handling the puck and a players runs into them trying to get the puck there shouldn’t be a penalty called. As it stands now if a player taps a goalie anywhere on the ice he is whistled for goalie interference or roughing, that is just stupid and gives an unfair advantage to the goalkeeper. I would also start a committee of players, owners, NHL officials and refs to settle once and for all the issues regarding what is and isn’t a penalty for interference, hooking, slashing etc. The current system of refs being instructed by the league to call penalties tightly in the beginning of the season and players and coaches having to figure it out is ridiculous. The players, coaches and refs need to be on the same page from the first game to the last, season after season. This committee would be charged with coming up with a standard for each penalty, that the refs would stick to all season, including the playoffs and the players would learn to play around.
I understand that most of these changes would require negotiations with the player’s union and that is why I consider the repair of the relationship between the league and union so important. I believe that if the two sides can learn to trust each other then most of these items would not be a big deal to get enacted. The owners and players have to realize that their sport is failing and changes need to be made if they wish to regain relevance. I think hockey is one of the best sports on earth and I wish more people agreed with me and I think these changes would go a long way to making that happen.