There's a well-established tradition in the NHL that fans recognize and honour, and which nobody in the league establishment acknowledges. It manifested itself at the entry draft in Los Angeles and the Stanley Cup presentation in Philadelphia this year, but it's the same no matter wherever or whenever those events are held. It's a universal bond of NHL fanhood to boo Gary Bettman as loudly and rudely as possible.
It's not difficult to comprehend why fans don't like Bettman; especially Canadian fans. His gimmicky interest in increasing goal scoring, his insistence on forcing the southern-market agenda and his blatant disregard of the interests of Canadian-based teams that stand as the backbone of the league's economy drive most real hockey fans nuts. The year of no hockey just to force the salary cap issue didn't help either. What is hard to understand, though, is why the owners still put up with him.
The current bunch of team owners didn't, after all, hire Bettman to begin with. He was parachuted into the job by none other than convicted fraudster Bruce McNall. The then-Kings owner was the NHL's golden boy back in 1992. He'd pulled off the trade of the century in bringing Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles. Hockey, which had been at best a carnival side-show, the poor cousin who shared digs with the mighty Lakers, suddenly became cool in one of the biggest markets in America. That McNall was able to pull off such a feat, with a team that had been an NHL footnote for its lifetime, lent him a golden glow most in the hockey world unabashedly admired. McNall was elected chairman of the league's Board of Governors...the NHL's second-highest position...in 1992. It fell to the Board and McNall to hire a commissioner to run the league. Gil Stein was in office at the time, and McNall got rid of him by promising him a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame if he'd step down. That opened the door for McNall's choice: the guy who was second-in-command of the NBA. That guy turned down the job, and McNall went for the third-in-command of the basketball league: Gary Bettman.
The Gretzky Effect in L.A. was inspirational for a lot of nouveau riche potential owners. A lot of guys thought they could make hockey fly in places where ice was only found in drinks and hockey was a game played by prep-school girls in short skirts. Bettman sold a vision to those guys. The league was taking off, he said, and there'd be fans flocking to southern markets once they'd been introduced to the game, just like in L.A. A big, national TV deal wouldn't be far behind.
Of course, it didn't work out that way. Ownership of many of the southern teams has been unstable and, in some cases, criminal. Speculators who bought into the NHL promise soon found out the game was a harder sell than Bettman had led them to believe. Now the NHL has been forced to take over in Phoenix. Ownership in Florida, Atlanta and Dallas is shaky. Teams that actually make money, like the Habs, have to share revenue with the teams who give tickets away just to get butts in the seats. The NHL is, by no means, an owner's dream club.
After all, when the "NHL" is paying the bills of the Phoenix Coyotes, that actually means the other owners are footing the cost. When Bettman's personal vendetta against Jim Balsillie prevents the purchase of the team, it means he's downloading the cost of his hubris on the rest of the owners.
Seventeen years after his appointment as league commissioner, there's still no national television deal for hockey in the United States. Canadian teams are still providing 37% of league total revenue, but are a minority when it comes to league decision-making. Bettman gives condescending interviews about how the NHL will "someday" expand to Canada but fans will need to be patient. Meanwhile, several of his sunbelt teams are in real danger of going belly up, and Bettman won't consider relocation as an option for saving them.
Fans of teams like the Canadiens, who want to see an equitable system of sharing wealth that includes consideration of local tax rates, are ignored. That's why they're mad. The teams fans love are being held hostage by a little man from basketball who hasn't delivered on his big promises. It's a mystery why the owners are still not noticing Bettman's wearing no clothes.
When he gets booed, commentators make note. They chuckle indulgently as the catcalls rain down on Bettman's head. Underneath the tradition, the "we must boo Bettman because it's expected" performance, though, there's real anger. Fans don't like him because he's not been good for the game. The owners need to wake up and realize why people are jeering the guy who's supposed to be leading the league into the future.