By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Gary Bettman is not the commissioner of the NHL.
He is merely the owners’ commissioner.
The commissioner of a major sports league is supposed to look out for the best interests of the sport as a whole and not favor one group over another.
Bettman is hired by the owners and he works at their pleasure, so he has taken on the role of owners’ advocate in negotiations with the NHL Players’ Association.
Those owners would be better off financially if the players were paid a smaller percentage of the league’s revenues. That’s why he has engineered the third lockout of his tenure.
There is little doubt that it is Bettman’s lockout. Since becoming commissioner in 1993, he has secured power for himself like no other sports power broker.
The process of his power grab has been described by author Jonathon Gatehouse in his book, “The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever.”
Bettman is the undisputed leader. He is backed by the league’s most influential owners – Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins and Ed Snider of the Philadelphia Flyers – and he slaps down anyone who gets in his way.
That includes a seemingly powerful owner in James Dolan of the New York Rangers. When Dolan wanted to run his own independent website and not use the league’s official outlet, Bettman threatened to strip the Rangers from his family’s ownership.
Bettman feels all-powerful and he has conducted negotiations with Donald Fehr and the NHLPA in a demeaning way.
The sides are not as far apart as they once were, but there are still roadblocks that are keeping players off the ice.
When progress has been made, it’s been with Bettman’s deputy Bill Daly and Fehr’s brother and No. 2 man Steve Fehr handling the negotiations.
There’s less ego and more talk when those two are in the room. Daly is interested in getting the players back on the ice and so is Steve Fehr.
This is not to condemn Donald Fehr, who has given the NHL players the kind of strong and professional representation they did not have in 2004-05. Former NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow was never able to gain any traction with Bettman and when players were finally allowed to come back in and play in 2005-06, the end result was complete capitulation to Bettman.
That’s why Bettman has so much power now. He won that lockout for the owners and made them a lot of money. Revenues had reached the $3.3 billion mark last year, more than tripling from the pre-2004-05 levels.
Owners credited him for their success and allowed him to rule their sport.
There is no doubt that he is a smart and strong businessman.
But as an advocate for his sport, Bettman has failed to live up to the standards set by Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue in the NFL and David Stern in the NBA.
Baseball’s greatest commissioner was Kennesaw Mountain Landis and he was hired to clean up the sport after 1919 Black Sox scandal. He never had to contend with labor unions. The most notable baseball commissioners since then have been Bowie Kuhn and Bud Selig, both of whom lacked vision and leadership.
The NHL has never had a first-rate commissioner.
The one they have now appears intent on ruining the sport.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.