Bettman's quiet summer belies NHL's current predicament

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A quick review of sports news these days is likely to include a story of an embattled commissioner fending off interrogations about how to handle his sport's latest controversy.

Roger Goodell of the NFL has had to deal with disciplinary issues since taking over for Paul Tagliabue last season, and currently has the alleged Michael Vick dog-fighting ring to deal with.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig has been doing his best Hamlet impersonation as he waffles over whether or not he should embrace Barry Bonds chase of Hank Aaron's all-time home run record.

Finally, David Stern of the NBA has been dealing with the news that one of his referees has been gambling on league games.

Gary Bettman
Despite the lack of public scrutiny, Gary Bettman and the NHL are facing their own set of problems.

That leaves us with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who has been lucky enough to avoid a major scandal this summer. That fact would make Bettman happy, if he wasn't coming off one of the most criticized NHL seasons in recent memory.

Now, Bettman did have quite the controversy on his hands last year, when former NHL player Rick Tocchet was charged with promoting a nationwide gambling ring. Janet Jones, the wife of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, was also accused of placing bets within the ring, but was not charged in the case. Luckily for Bettman and the NHL, that story slowly went away as Tocchet ultimately pled guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling.

Since the end of the Stanley Cup finals, Bettman and his league's current problems are not garnering headlines, but the NHL's overall situation still leaves hockey fans with cause for great concern.

First on the docket should be the disastrous television ratings the hockey playoffs pulled in the United States.

Every league outside of the NFL is struggling with its TV numbers in the U.S., but the NHL's ratings were so low it started to raise the question, "How long can professional hockey operate as a major sport in America?". After all, the NHL gets pounded regularly in the ratings by NASCAR, and is now even getting surpassed by Arena Football and poker.

The fact that the NHL is getting horrible numbers on Versus, the league's cable carrier in the U.S., is not surprising, because that channel's profile is practically nonexistent compared to that of ESPN. Few people actually watch the NHL on Versus, and only slightly more seem to join the action when hockey is broadcast nationally on NBC.

A larger presence on American television is a must to ensure the future success of the NHL. All the Sidney Crosbys and Alexander Ovechkins in the world aren't going to do the league any good unless they are marketed properly.

The bottom line is that Bettman needs to get his league a new television deal in the U.S. soon, or the NHL could be relegated to the back page of the sports section with professional lacrosse and indoor soccer.

The league has looked sluggish for quite some time thanks to Bettman's love of non-traditional hockey towns like Anaheim, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, etc. Some of those clubs have actually flourished on the ice, with the Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning winning the last three Stanley Cup titles, but championships won't turn locals into hockey fans overnight.

Then there is the case of the Nashville Predators, a team that has improved its play and popularity since coming into the league in 1998-99, but is still in danger of getting moved to greener pastures. The proposed move to southern Ontario appears to have fallen by the wayside, but the Preds could still get relocated to Kansas City or Winnipeg.

Moving the Predators to either of those places might help that franchise, but Bettman and the NHL now need to consider bringing up that hated c-word: contraction.

If the NHL went the contraction route and eliminated six teams, that could possibly give the league the boost it has been looking for. The remaining teams would see their talent level increase and that couldn't help but improve the quality of play on the ice.

Getting rid of a few teams in the southern part of the U.S. would be the best way to employ this strategy, and that would help the NHL get back in touch with its true fan base.

But Bettman has always seemed to care more about the business end of things than the quality of play in the league and that's why contraction is a long shot.

Ultimately, what the NHL needs to do is finally decide that Bettman's tenure as commissioner is nearing its end. Since taking the position in February of 1993, Bettman has watched as the league's popularity has plummeted, and it is clear that new leadership is needed.

Just because Bettman has eluded a major scandal so far this summer doesn't mean that everything is right in the NHL. One of these days, Bettman's incompetence will catch up to him, and only then can the NHL regain its standing as a major sport in the U.S.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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