Apologists often defend Gary Bettman, saying he's "growing the game", and making everyone rich. As far as the goonery, well, that's not his department, they say, that's because of the refs.
I disagree completely. The concussions and dirty play are entirely Gary Bettman's fault. He's the CEO, he's ultimately responsible. He's more concerned with balance sheets and entering into incestuous TV deals with networks owned by one of this 30 owners (instead of the correct choice of ESPN) than he is about the actual quality of the game he's trying to sell.
I've said this often, and I'll repeat it now, but other sports have taken steps to make their game more fan-friendly and spectacular.
Rugby Union was a sport that was threatened by Rugby League's growth, and its own insistence on players retaining 'amateur' status. Rugby Union eventually reacted, legalizing professional players, and the game has exploded. European clubs, the Super Twelve in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the Tri-Nations and Six Nations tournaments, and the crown jewel, the Rugby World Cup, all are leaving Rugby League in the dust.
Also, the sport has tweaked its rules to ensure that boring, defensive teams like England, who used to kick the ball away without mercy, like dump-and-chase in hockey, and then hoped for a fortuitous penalty call or two to kick an easy penalty kick or two, and win a stultifying 6-3 game, at the expense of ticket buyers and television spectators, cannot prevail anymore. Now, the value of the try has been increased from four to five points, so it's worth it to attack instead of just play for a kick, and it's near impossible to strictly play defense against a superior team. If you try to collapse a maul or ruck, or wheel a scrum, the attacking team gets the ball , the defending team is penalized. The refs don't even need to 'prove' that the infraction was intentional, it's not like the incidental trips that NHL refs turn a blind eye to. The team that was going forward keeps the ball, the team that had everything to gain by playing anti-rugby, is held strictly responsible.
It makes sense. If an NHL player is on a partial breakaway and is being backchecked by a defenceman, and both tangle and fall and the play is over, it makes sense that the defending player caused it and benefited from it. Why not automatically call the penalty on the defenceman, it's not like the attacking player made himself fall. Except that with referees not calling hooking and slashing and holding, defensive players do all of that, and prevent a clear chance on goal, so the player on breakaway now decides he may try to dive and draw a penalty, get a scoring chance that way, on the powerplay, cause he's not going to score with Mike Kostka hacking away at his hands.
NFL football liberalized its passing rules to allow for more open games, to transform the game from the Ohio State "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach to the Air Coryell philosophy. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms in pass blocking and put their hands on defensive players, as long as they don't hold (wink, wink). Defensive backs were restricted to a five-yard bump zone, beyond which they cannot contact a receiver who doesn't have the ball without incurring a penalty. This caused an explosion in scoring, and the NFL easily vaulted past MLB as the most successful sports property in North America.
Later, rules such as the Tom Brady rule, preventing a defensive player from tackling a quarterback at the knees or below were enacted. Another rule prevents any defensive player from striking a QB on the helmet, no matter how slight the contact. These were introduced in the realization that the quarterbacks are the ones responsible for the success of the league, they're the face of their respective teams, they're responsible for the quality of the show. The NFL knows it's better off with Peyton Manning starting against Ben Roethlisberger, rather than if their backups were. Defensive players who grumble that you can't touch Aaron Rodgers are missing the point that it's the same rule for both defences, so it evens out, and more importantly, it's Aaron Rodgers that makes everyone rich, including the defensive linemen trying to sack him.
Somehow the NHL doesn't get that. Star players such as Sidney Crosby or Daniel Sedin or Jeremy Roenick are fair game, they're beaten to within an inch of their life during the season and playoffs, and some miss vast stretches of games. It would make too much sense for the league to protect its stars, like the NFL does, but instead, it kow-tows to Mike Milbury and Don Cherry.
I've mentioned how the NBA went all in on Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and later Michael Jordan, and allowed them to play the game at the peak of their potential, instead of allowing Bill Laimbeer to knee and push and roughhouse them to a standstill. Again an easy call.
Meanwhile the NHL lets Mike Hough hook Wayne Gretzky, and allows Matt Cooke to headhunt Marc Savard, and Duncan Keith to elbow and slash Daniel Sedin, in the name of defensive hockey. Which is ridiculous. Hockey should be tilted toward the skill players, towards scoring and offence, not the slashers and muckers who can't keep up. Hockey should be about pleasing the fans, instead of parity, or about allowing desperate coaches to grimly hang on to their jobs through the trap. Hockey should be up and down, back and forth, high scoring action, with tic-tac-toe passing, speed and breakaways and two-on-ones and three-on-twos, still with hitting and toughness, but the kind where Ryan Kesler squares off against Patrice Bergeron, Vincent Lecavalier against Jarome Iginla, not where Milan Lucic takes Dominic Moore's head off, because he might as well since he's going to get away with it.
The fact is, third liners and fourth liners should be guys like Mason Raymond and Aaron Palushaj, not Travis Moen and Ryan White, or George Parros. Imagine if that's what we saw when the fourth lines were on the ice, 'undersized' flyers from the European leagues, or the LHJMQ, racing up and down the ice still, not quite as good as Ovechkin or Malkin, but still darn entertaining, instead of Ryan Malone and Greg Campbell.
So yes, the NHL is strangling its own game. They should be serving non-stop action, but instead deal up shotblocking and 2-1 scores.
I've used a restaurant analogy before, where you have a barely surviving operation, and the chef wants to take some dishes like macaroni and cheese or the fried baloney sandwich off the menu, but the manager won't let him, because there's a small but vocal bunch of regulars who'll squawk when that happens. And instead of realizing that those regulars, with their loudmouth antics and cigar smoke and intolerant attitudes to other patrons who'd appreciate a different atmosphere, are the ones driving the business into the ditch, the manager tries to placate them, for fear of losing their $8 bi-weekly check.
Instead, take the baloney off the menu, tell the cranky regulars to go somewhere else for their baloney if they're not happy, and by the way they can't occupy the best tables all afternoon lording it over everyone and acting like they own the joint. Let's reserve those tables for the college girls looking for a nice salad after yoga.
In my analogy, Gary Bettman is the GM of the restaurant, who worries more about the books and trite marketing with coupons and cross-promotions with the tire store down the street, instead of securing the central pillar of his business, a quality product at a fair price. Sure, he can't go in the kitchen and cook himself, but he can ensure that everyone responsible for putting out quality meals are supported with training and equipment, and then held accountable for that high standard to be maintained.
Instead, Gary Bettman is incapable of seeing that the game is much less than it could be, since he has no feel for it, no experience, he didn't grown up with it, watching it or playing it. He thinks because the ratings are rising that things must be okay. He can't remember the Oilers of the eighties, Guy Lafleur flying up the wing, has no sense of what Hakan Loob meant to the people of Calgary, and how such a player might not even make the NHL nowadays.
He has abysmal, fatally-flawed Colin Campbell as his Director of Hockey Operations, even after the conflict of interest exhibited in his leaked emails mortally wounded any credibility he might have had. Mr. Campbell is the dim bulb that brainiac Bob Probert easily outwitted to continue using drugs and drinking alcohol while 'on rehab' as a Wing, as told in the latter's biography. That such an underqualified goon is allowed to lay waste to hockey, while there are so many other talented people who could fill the role, is a fireable offence. Why doesn't he have a Paul Kariya or Igor Larionov being groomed to take that role?
So yes, Gary Bettman is responsible for the concussions and defensive-play and triumph of coaching and systems over talent, skill and creativity that brings us out of our seats. Think about it, when was the last time Anton Volchenkov brought you out of your seat by blocking a shot? Gary Bettman favours the practitioners of anti-hockey, maybe without really being aware of it, since he don't know hockey, but as the CEO, he's ultimately responsible for the dead-puck era and the concussion era.