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Hartnett: NHL Is On The Verge Of A PR Nightmare

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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By Sean Hartnett
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All the ingredients are there for the NHL to flourish, except one thing: a man overseeing the sport with the best interests of the fans, owners and players at heart.

Since being named the first commissioner of the NHL in February 1993, Gary Bettman has overseen three work stoppages.  A large part of his role as commissioner is to successfully market the game, avoid labor unrest and protect the health of the league.  Bettman has failed spectacularly in each of these areas throughout his tenure.

On Friday, the NHL cancelled the entire November schedule.  In the near future, the 2013 Winter Classic and 2013 NHL All-Star Game are next on the chopping block.  An announcement cancelling the two events could come as early as next week.

Losing The Winter Classic Will Greatly Damage The NHL

When I speak with casual hockey fans, many have been drawn to the NHL by the success and uniqueness of the Winter Classic.  Since the first Winter Classic took place on New Year’s Day 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the event has become a showpiece for the NHL to cultivate new fans during the regular season.

There’s something magical about the Winter Classic. It makes fans who grew up playing hockey remember their days lacing up their skates at a local pond, and it enchants the curiosity of newer fans.

Last season, the NHL took advantage of gaining new fans in the New York metropolitan area by having the New York Rangers participate against the rival Philadelphia Flyers in the 2012 Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park.

The heated rivalry between these genuine foes was highlighted throughout the build up to the Winter Classic on HBO’s 24/7 series.  One moment in particular demonstrated the intensity of the rivalry, when Flyers enforcer Tom Sestito and Rangers assistant captain Brad Richards talked trash between the benches.

Together, the intrigue of the Winter Classic and the exposure of colorful NHL stars have brought fans closer to the game.

A lot of the positive steps forward are becoming undone by the constant slashing of regular-season games and the looming possibility of the cancellation of the 2013 Winter Classic.

This season’s Winter Classic was set to be the first time that Canadian and American teams faced off outdoors, to be played at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.  The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings have been meeting in the “Battle of the Windsor Corridor” since the 1920s.  These two “Original Six” members have been two of the most storied teams in the league’s history, and are just 240 miles apart.

Having the Leafs and Red Wings take the ice at one of college football’s hallowed grounds in front of 109,000 screaming fans was marketing gold for the NHL.  Now, Bettman and league owners are willing to throw away a great opportunity.

Losing not only the Winter Classic, but also the All-Star Game would be a huge blow to the marketability and growth of the league.  While the overall popularity of the NHL All-Star Game has faded, it still strikes a chord with kids and teenagers who enjoy the skills competition and fan-friendly events around All-Star weekend.

Ovechkin And Other Stars May Not Return This Season

One of the greatest stars in the NHL is Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.  His scoring knack, physical strength, ability to pull off all-world moves and goofy personality had made “Ovie” one of the key players in growing the popularity of the league.

Currently, Ovechkin is playing for HC Dynamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League.  Ovechkin has been outspoken in his belief that many NHL stars playing in Europe will not return once the NHL gets under way.

“If our salaries get slashed, I’ll have to think about whether to return to tge NHL,” Ovechkin told Sport-Express in September.

He’s not the only one threatening to stay in the KHL.  Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils recently echoed similar sentiments in an interview with Sportbox.ru.

“Basically, I don’t rule out staying in Russia in the case of a reduction of our salaries in the NHL,” Kovalchuk said.

Why should Ovechkin and other stars playing in Europe return to play a 50-game NHL schedule after getting a taste of a less physical league in their homelands, and being forced to take potential losses due to a salary rollback or escrow?

What would the NHL be without entertaining stars such as Ovechkin and Kovalchuk, who are all the most important players on their respective teams?  Currently, there is an agreement between the KHL and NHL to honor each other’s contracts, but who’s to say players won’t challenge this agreement?

If Ovechkin and Kovalchuk stay in Russia, there would be a huge backlash from fans at the gate in Washington and New Jersey.

The NHL And NHLPA Must Introduce A Mediator Now

Neither side is backing off their stances in negotiations.  Bettman and the owners have continued to impose deadlines, force “take-it-or-leave-it offers” and have refused to engage in fruitful negotiations with the NHLPA.  Bettman has continually pointed the finger at NHLPA head Donald Fehr for not coming up with an offer worth considering.

Fehr, meanwhile, has rallied the players into standing firm against Bettman and the owners for cutting their salaries during the 2004-05 lockout, and they feel that the owners are only willing to make small tweaks to an offer that largely favors their interests.

Neither Fehr nor the owners are willing to budge. It’s going to take an outside mediator to be introduced if the NHL is to resume on December 1.

The longer this dispute drags out, the more likely you’ll see players in Europe rebelling against their NHL contracts, and more importantly, casual fans turning away from arenas and demanding cancellations of their season-ticket plans.

Kick Bettman Out Of The Stanley Cup Presentation

Should there be a 2013 NHL playoffs and Stanley Cup Final in June 2013, I strongly suggest the league hires a legendary former player such as Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr to present the Prince of Wales, Clarence Campbell and Stanley Cup trophies instead of Bill Daly and Bettman.

Every time Bettman walks the red carpet to hand over the Stanley Cup, he receives boisterous boos from fans in the arena.  They will only get louder and more vicious considering Bettman’s role in this labor dispute.

It would be much more fitting if a popular icon of the past — such as Gretzky, Orr or Mark Messier — spoke about his experiences winning the Cup and then handed the trophy over to the winning captain.

This would do both the sport and Bettman a world of good.

Are Bettman and NHL owners on course to significantly damage the league’s popularity? Sound off below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.