Gary Bettman stood at center ice in Bridgestone Arena with a comically oversized check in his hands. “One Million Dollars,” it read, intended for the recipient’s team. The NHL’s longtime commissioner smiled as he handed it to towering All-Star captain John Scott, who cast a shadow over the diminutive Bettman, shielding him from the bright lights and photo flashes. Scott’s grin looked like it was the size of a 200' x 85' rink, at least. It was not only his time to shine but also a moment to savor for the players, both the All-Stars who were in Nashville and the hundreds of others elsewhere.
And judging from the outpouring of sheer appreciation and satisfaction on Twitter, it was a time for fans of the NHL to smile as well. After Scott was named the All-Star Game MVP, everything seemed right with the hockey world again. What began as a fan-driven joke movement to get the seldom-used and sparsely skilled Scott elected to the event had succeeded, with ultimately surprising, heartwarming results, and for the first time in some time it felt like the NHL’s paying customers had gained serious traction in the big picture of how the league does business.
In that sense, maybe the check Bettman handed over wasn’t so symbolic in nature. Maybe he was handing over a sliver of power, as thin as the check itself, to players and the fans. They’d earned it. By the time controversial Scott had been named MVP, after scoring two goals in the new 3-on-3 tournament and delivering only the second hit ever to be registered in an All-Star Game, players and fans everywhere were galvanized in their support of the journeyman enforcer who had recently been traded and demoted to the minors.
And Bettman, fresh off it a report that he’d signed a seven-year extension to remain commissioner, came out looking very poorly, despite the smiles and his insistence that Scott was, indeed, welcome at the event after all.
It’s easy to see why Bettman was given another extension. Giant TV deals on both sides of the border, increased revenues and the constant lure of expanding the league to 32 teams (he has said that expansion fees could be around $500 million per team) mean that he’s in very good graces with his bosses, the league’s owners.
Yet the owners are only one piece of the puzzle.
Bettman has never been one to try to placate fans en masse but the John Scott triumph—let’s not call it a dilemma, a fiasco, or even a “situation” anymore as it deserves a much more positive association—should serve as a warning: NHL fans are a discerning, evolving bunch who demand a product that serves their interests as much as it does the owners. If Bettman tries to push an element of the game that doesn’t sit well with the fans, they’ll voice their displeasure and embarrass the league, as they did by ultimately forcing it to let Scott participate in All-Star Weekend. Further proof lies in their general rejection of the “advanced stats” feature on the NHL’s website in favor of fan-built sites that offer a much more accurate and telling look inside the game.
Given the league’s clumsy handling of Scott's appearance, this year’s event will likely be the last to feature fan voting, or at the very least a modified and highly restricted form of it will be put in place. But as luck would have it, Bettman and the NHL fell ass-backwards into a successful, well-received event. The commissioner should take the universally positive reaction to All-Star Weekend in Nashville as a glaring hint that properly harnessing the power of social media is a necessary step in maintaining the NHL as an engaging product, one that may even change fans’ otherwise negative perception of him.
And let’s not forget the other piece of the equation: the players. Every time Scott was on camera this weekend, a fellow All-Star wasn’t far behind. From Brent Burns hamming it up in locker room interviews to Taylor Hall talking about a “contract extension” for Scott during a mid-game segment on the bench, players widely came out in support of him. Perhaps that’s because there is a little bit of Scott in every player, even the elite ones: a man with a dream of making it to The Show against long odds and his desire to soak up every fleeting moment after he achieves his goal.
John Scott is just one public relations black eye that Bettman must consider. The next seven years of his tenure may very well be defined by his role in the ongoing concussion issue. The lawsuit filed by former players has started to bring to light some pretty damning truths about the league’s attitude, what it knew and how it did or didn’t try to protect players from long-term brain injuries. Not only could Bettman be forced to admit that past NHL executives didn’t do enough to protect players, the more traction the lawsuit gains the more the current crop of players will start to question how well they are being protected now. And that can lead to thorny relations with the NHLPA. Labor peace is crucial to maintaining positive momentum and popularity, as the three lockouts on Bettman’s watch have demonstrated.
If this stellar weekend in Nashville proved anything it’s that Bettman will be wise to adjust his focus moving forward and keep the happiness of fans and players as well as the owners always in sight.