Sunday books: How Gary Bettman changed hockey

With Gary Bettman into another major work stoppage, and hopefully not his second cancelled season, it seems to be an appropriate time to evaluate the tenure of the NHL commissioner.

Jonathan Gatehouse took on the task in a new book: The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever.

Tom Hoffarth of the Los Angeles Daily News did a recent interview with Gatehouse. Here are some of the excerpts.

Q: What prompted the idea to do a bio on Bettman? I imagine the process starting a year or so earlier, knowing there’d be a labor issue approaching and he’d be a targeted person again? Was that the thinking?

A: The idea came about initially because it dawned on me that this winter will mark Bettman’s 20th anniversary as NHL commissioner and nobody had really taken a step back and tried to evaluate the impact he has had on pro hockey. And when you think about it, it’s not hard to conclude that he’s become the most influential–and powerful–figure the game has ever known. But at the time I started researching the book, more than 18 months ago, it wasn’t so clear that a lockout was looming. At that point, Bettman was still talking about “tweaking” the current arrangement with the players, not blowing it up. The timing just ended up being great for me, and lousy for the fans.

Q: What caused the word ‘instigator’ to come up as the title to describe him? That’s really eye-drawing.

A: It just seemed to fit. He’s instigated so many changes to the league during his time as commissioner–on and off the ice. And in that very specific hockey sense of the word, he’s the guy who gets paid by the owners to drop the gloves and start the fights.

Q: Going forward, does he seem to be the right guy to “carry on” and lead the league another 20 years?

A: Listen, if Gary Bettman wins this lockout — which I’m convinced he will–he’s emperor for life. Whether he’s the right guy to carry on will be immaterial. The owners respect money, and he’s made them plenty.

My first job: Costas calls minor league hockey for $30 per game in Syracuse; McCarver recalls Costas’ Uncle Lenny

I’m launching a new feature today called My First Job.

For all the success and accomplishments people have in the business, virtually everyone had a first job that saw them start on the ground floor, or lower. Often, it was a humbling, if not sobering, experience that included a pitfall or two along the way. Call it  learning life’s lessons. The stories are pretty entertaining.

From time to time, I’m going to check in with the now rich and famous to write about where they started in the media game.

With the Olympics taking place, I figured Bob Costas would be a good first subject. Besides hosting the Olympics, he is known for his work on baseball, football, basketball and as an excellent interviewer.

Yet his first paid broadcast job came doing hockey. Here’s Costas:

I called games for the Syracuse Blazers of what was essentially the old Eastern Hockey League. It was the league that Slapshot was based on. I knew many of the people who were extras in the movie. The screenwriter (Nancy Dowd) was the sister of Ned Dowd, who was the goaltender for the Johnstown Jets. The character of Ogie Oglethorpe–and people who have watched this movie 100 times, and I know there are people like that, know this character–he’s based 100 percent on a guy named Bill Harpo, who played for the Syracuse Blazers.

I got $30 per game. I was a senior in Syracuse (Oct., ’73). They didn’t do home games; only road games on the theory that a radio broadcast would hurt the home gate. The team drew very well.

We went to Johnstown, Pa., Lewistown, Maine. They played in the (facility) where Ali knocked out Liston in ’65. We would ride the bus 7-8 hours. You’d get on the bus at 7 in morning. I’d literally be writing term papers and studying lineups at same time while riding the bus.

The learning curve was steep. Not just because I had to teach myself how to broadcast hockey, I wasn’t a polished broadcaster to begin with. I had only done college radio. I had no hockey background.

I got to where I was pretty good. I could definitely keep up with the action.

From there, almost a year later, I’m in St. Louis on KMOX doing Spirits of St. Louis basketball (of the old ABA). That team had the great Marvin Barnes.

When I got to KMOX, it was a broadcast mecca. The station had Jack Buck, Dan Kelly, Bob Starr, one of the best football announcers ever. These were people of real consequence. You had to get better in a hurry just to keep up. By osmosis, I’m sure I learned a lot and improved quicker than I otherwise would have.

Costas eventually went to NBC. In 1980, he worked his first network game with Tim McCarver, who was in his initial days as analyst after retiring from Philadelphia. McCarver remembers the experience:

Bob and I did our first game for the network (NBC) together in 1980. It was Red Sox-Angels. We were the back-up to the back-up game. Maybe six percent of the country saw it.

Bob had an Uncle Lenny. He sat in the truck, and he actually critiqued our broadcast. He was probably the only one who saw it. He said, “You could have done this better.”

I still have a picture from Bob. He signed it, “To Tim: Uncle Lenny would approve.”

We’re the only two people who know what that means.







Stanley Cup Final could have used a Gretzky; Game 1 ratings soar with LeBron, Durant

It’s all about big, big stars.

The NBA has them for its final; the NHL didn’t. Just look at the ratings.

Final numbers for the Stanley Cup finals were the lowest since 2007. The Los Angeles Kings-New Jersey ratings were down 33 percent from last year, averaging 3 million viewers per game.

Meanwhile, Game 1 of the NBA Finals did an 11.8 overnight rating, the highest ever for a game on ABC. And it only figures to get bigger if LeBron James and company can win a few games in this series.

The NBA rating speaks to the star power of a final that includes James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook. As much as people hate the Heat, they still tune in to watch. I thought it was great that they made the finals. Rooting for Miami to lose to Boston is sort of like wanting Jack Nicholson’s Joker to be knocked off with 45 minutes left in Batman. I wanted more Heat, not less.

As for hockey, would the ratings have been down if the Kings still had a player named Wayne Gretzky? Definitely not.

Gretkzy, though, is long gone, and the league doesn’t have another transcendent star, given the uncertain health status of Sidney Crosby. As a result, the final featured two mostly unknown teams. And the Kings going up 3-0 also dulled the ratings momentum.

The NHL’s parity is great in the early rounds, when the No. 8 Kings proved that the seeds don’t really matter in hockey. The new format of airing every game on NBC’s various platforms resulted in a nice increase in the ratings.

However, the problem with parity is that sometimes the big-name teams and players get knocked off before the finals. For the first time since 2007, there wasn’t an Original 6 team or Crosby-led Pittsburgh in the Finals. Instead, the NHL got Los Angeles-New Jersey, two teams that don’t necessarily move the meter even in their home markets.

There are plenty of positives for hockey. But as the ratings for the Final showed, there’s plenty of room for improvement.





ESPN doesn’t hate hockey, or so it claims

The question was direct.

“Why does ESPN hate hockey?” I asked Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice-president and director of news.

Doria tried to suppress a frustrated laugh. He protested, “We don’t hate hockey.”

Hockey fans, though, know ESPN definitely doesn’t love their sport. There’s a limited presence on SportsCenter since its networks no longer carry games. You won’t find the First Take guys talking much about the Phoenix Coyotes.

According to Deadspin’s Bristolmetrics, which tracks SportsCenter’s dedicated time to a particular sport, hockey accounted for 4.7 percent of its coverage from Jan. 7-April 26. The NBA, meanwhile, had 23.4 percent. Hockey couldn’t even beat “other,” which had 8.8. percent.

Now to be fair, ESPN has raised its hockey allotment during the playoffs. Last week, hockey rose to 15 percent. However, a big part of that might have been due to the New York Rangers winning their series in seven games. Nothing like an iconic New York team to get ESPN excited.

Doria admits ESPN won’t ever get too pumped up about hockey. In a recent Q/A with Doria, he explains why hockey doesn’t move the meter in Bristol.

Why does ESPN hate hockey?

Doria: We don’t hate hockey. When I worked in Boston (as sports editor of the Boston Globe), I probably went to more Bruins games than Celtics. There’s probably not a better in-the-house sport than hockey. Watching it live. My own personal feeling is that it never transferred well to television. I’m not exactly sure why that is.

Why does hockey get a limited presence on SportsCenter?

Doria: It’s a sport that engenders a very passionate local following. If you’re a Blackhawks fan in Chicago, you’re a hardcore fan. But it doesn’t translate to television, and where it really doesn’t transfer much to is a national discussion, which is something that typifies what we do.

Baseball fans are interested where Albert Pujols is going. NBA fans are interested in the Miami Heat. For whatever reason, and this is my unsubstantiated research on it, hockey doesn’t generate that same kind of interest nationwide. You look at national talk shows. Hockey rarely is a topic. People in Boston aren’t that interested with what’s going on with the Blackhawks.

Would it be different if you were a rights holder?

Doria: Well, we were at one time. It wasn’t that different. Listen, I guess if we were rights holder, there probably would be a little more attention paid to it. It’s typical that would happen. We might throw it to commentators who were inside the building. Now we’re not inside the building.

Even though ESPN doesn’t have hockey, you decided to keep Barry Melrose. Why?

Doria: When we lost it, we wanted to keep a hockey presence. We wanted to keep Barry, the best there is in my mind. But now the only place to put Barry is on SportsCenter. If you look at the first few years, after we lost hockey, Barry probably was on SportsCenter more after we lost it than when we had hockey.

Before, he would appear on NHL Tonight. Sometimes, we’d put him on SportsCenter. But there was no real demand to put him on SportsCenter. NHL Tonight was his job, and they’d do all the highlights.

NBC Sports Network has locked up hockey for a long time. What’s going to be ESPN’s approach to the sports going forward?

Doria: We’ll be out at the Stanley Cup. If you watch our show, we do highlights and report scores.

But if you go to our radio and television shows, there’s not a lot of hockey talk. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of yammer out there to give us hockey talk.