usual suspects

Bettman’s gaffe implies fans are mere doormats

Special to The Globe and Mail

Gary Bettman Commissioner of the NHL leaves the NHLPA offices in Toronto on Wednesday, August 22, 2012. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The NHL triumphed in the 2004-05 lockout because it sensed that everyone disliked Bob Goodenow, leader of the National Hockey League Players’ Association. So the league just kept repeating his name. Bingo, a salary cap.

Apparently the league has lost its magic media touch. Exhibit No. 1 would be commissioner Gary Bettman’s comment Thursday on the possible damage another lockout might cause in 2012.

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“We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans,” Bettman said. The commish meant this as a compliment, of course. An honest reading of this beauty is more like: “If you fans weren’t such doormats, I might be worried.”

The skin crawled here at the head office of Usual Suspects when Bettman trotted out this PR gem. Fans as doormat. The comment assumes that the customers are with him, not with the players. The fans are extraneous. He will act with impunity. Now, all of this may be true. But you don’t say that. At least, not to a bank of microphones and TV cameras. Not after you promised the last time that your snappy business plan would lower ticket prices.

This attitude is why the NHL is on shakier ground this time in the war for the hearts, minds and seat licences of fans. No one loves Don Fehr, Bettman’s opposite at the NHLPA. He’s the poster boy for aloof. But when you tell fans, “Hang on six months, we’ll get back to you,” it makes Fehr look like George Clooney.

Bettman delivered the usual boilerplate on Thursday about how his owners pay players too much and the fundamentals need to be addressed. But something tells us that “We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans” is going to be remembered a lot longer. Already, Twitter is printing phone numbers for the NHL and Bettman’s e-mail at the league. As we said before, this is Bettman’s first collective agreement under social media, and he’s not in Kansas any more.

NBC no wedge: Lots of talk about whether the NHL’s $200-million (U.S.) a year deal with NBC/Comcast would be a wedge issue forcing the league back to work sooner. As we reported when the deal was signed in April of 2011, the NHL gets its NBC payment regardless of whether it plays. It must add an extra, unpaid year to the deal in compensation. (Unlike players, owners can renegotiate their NBC deal should the parties agree.)

As well, should the collective agreement result in sending U.S. franchises to Canadian cities, NBC/Comcast has no recourse for compensation in the new TV deal should Phoenix or any other troubled franchise decamp for Canada.

As we’ve said before, the most interesting broadcast issue is whether the NHL lets a lockout cancel its popular 24/7 series on HBO. To keep to HBO’s schedule, the league needs to restart by about U.S. Thanksgiving. 24/7 is not a money-maker for the NHL, but its prestige and impact are irreplaceable.

Résumés welcome: Meanwhile, it’s summer time and the livin’ is easy at Hockey Night In Canada, where there is still no evidence of a new executive producer for HNIC. Good thing there might not be anything to executive produce till at least U.S. Thanksgiving. The opening was created when previous EP Trevor Pilling decided to concentrate on his other duties as head of production at CBC Sports. Since then it’s been an executive hot potato as candidates throughout the industry passed on the position.

Why? In the traditional model of HNIC, the EP was involved directly in talks with the NHL. The new EP will be lucky to see the room where negotiations happen, it already being crowded by Kirstine Stewart (executive vice president of English Services), Julie Bristow (Executive Director of Studio and Unscripted Programming), Jeffrey Orridge (executive director of CBC Sports Properties) and Pilling.

Money’s an issue, too, and so is the possibility there will be no HNIC by the fall of 2014 if the league doesn’t get a piece of the NHL’s next national TV deal.

Without an EP, Glenn Healy remains a free agent this summer. Healy declined to discuss his situation with Usual Suspects, but it’s known he is being courted by the competition. Mike Milbury, too, will not return to HNIC as his NBC duties take precedence. If Healy and Milbury leave, HNIC will need someone to go between the benches and to give the studio some gravitas.

Kelly Hrudey capably fills one analyst’s chair, and Elliotte Friedman might be brought into studio to help. P.J. Stock and Eric Francis are currently Ron MacLean’s intermission bench strength, but no one sees them as top-six material. Healy would be missed.