Commish trying to put NHL on ice

Less than five years ago, hockey was dead in the U.S.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, along with the league’s owners, decided that their sport could survive a lockout when they were unable to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement with the Players’ Association.

Several tentative years after a new agreement was reached and the league resumed play, Bettman is yet again doing his part to kill off interest in the NHL.

Up until about noon Sunday, the 2010 Olympic Winter Games were mostly forgettable; Shaun White’s coach cursed on television, Apollo Ohno won some more bronze medals, and Americans learned that Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso aren’t exactly BFFs.

All that changed, however, when the puck was dropped in the men’s gold medal hockey game. The 68-minute prizefight showcased some of the sport’s best talent in one of the most memorable hockey games of the past decade.

In a release Monday, NBC officials said that 27.6 million viewers in the U.S. watched the game live. Even more impressive, however, was the viewership in Canada, where 16.6 million people — around half of the country’s population — monitored the contest.

To put this into perspective, according to the NHL, less than 12 million people tuned in to watch Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals.

Before the men’s Olympic hockey games had begun, Bettman said in a Feb. 18 press conference that the NHL would not commit its players to the 2014 Olympics because doing so would hurt the league financially.

“This costs us money, this disrupts our season, and we’re here (only) because we think it helps our game,” Bettman said.

I must not be the genius that Bettman is, because I fail to see how advertising the league’s premier players to 44.2 million people is a bad thing.

In fact, it seems that had Bettman been just a little bit smarter, he would have correctly valued this as a rare opportunity to promote the NHL virtually free of cost. Instead, he decided to sit back and criticize the Olympics for hindering the NHL’s success.

During his tenure as commissioner, Bettman has managed to alienate a loyal fan base, lose a network TV contract and push the league further back into obscurity.

Hockey is truly a great sport. I will always count going to my first hockey game at age 3 and watching the San Jose Sharks take on the Hartford Whalers (R.I.P., Mighty Whale) at the dilapidated Cow Palace just outside San Francisco as one of the great memories of my life.

There’s an exhilaration and beauty that comes with watching hockey that no other sport provides. A jaw-dropping play or a bare-knuckle brawl is always just around the corner.

But if Bettman continues managing the NHL with a disdain for success, it won’t be long before he runs the league into the ground.

The owners need to kick Bettman to the curb and find someone with an IQ that can’t be counted on two hands to run the NHL. If they don’t, it may not be long before curling takes over as the unofficial fourth major sport in the U.S.

Sadly, many people wouldn’t see that as a bad thing.

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