TRANSCRIPT: Episode 9 - Gary Bettman is Not a Commissioner for These Times. The NHL Needs a Change.


When Gary Bettman woke up Tuesday morning, the day after his awful press conference about the Kyle Beach tragedy, he had to know the clock had begun to tick on the final stretch of his tenure as Commissioner of the National Hockey League.

The end will not be in the next few weeks, next few months and possibly not even before the start of the next NHL season, but the reality is this: We know – and I believe deep down, Bettman himself now knows – that he is not a Commissioner for these times.

Everything has changed. And with more difficult moments to come, the NHL cannot have a leader who’s incapable of handling sensitive and devastating issues with grace and humility.

Bettman tries. I have no doubt he worked really hard at preparing for that disaster on Monday. But being a well-trained lawyer and cunning businessman – and understanding your No. 1 job is to tend to the owners of the 32 teams – is no longer enough.

The next commissioner of the NHL will require some of Bettman’s skills, but they will also need to be able to have poise, dignity, compassion, and the ability to rise to the moment.

Gary Bettman has done some great work, but he is not special. He is not irreplaceable. Count on it: when Bettman is replaced, the new leadership will do much better growing the game, the brand and the business. Especially internationally.

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I’m sure you’ve read the reporting of Rick Westhead and Katie Strang on the Kyle Beach story. They’ve written and said it better. Support their journalism.

But here’s a few thoughts I have from the PR side, since this is what the podcast is about.

Ultimately, Bettman’s failings are his own. But did any of Bettman’s colleagues – including deputy Bill Daly and the League’s PR executives – actually advise Bettman on how to handle this?

In the prep for the press conference, did Bettman actually say out loud, “I don’t want to take any questions from Rick Westhead” … and then no one had the courage to tell the Commissioner that’s a really bad idea?

Even when Pierre Lebrun stepped in to say he hoped Westhead would be permitted to ask his questions, neither Bettman or Daly made a point to tell their PR staff to make it happen.

That was bizarre to me. Why wouldn’t they call on Rick Westhead first? He’s one of the reporters who brought the story of Kyle Beach to light. What petty, pathetic reason would the NHL have to not give Rick the floor?

That’s the Circle of Protection Bettman has around him. Or had. Over the last few weeks, it has started to crumble. He has been destroyed by outlets who in the past never criticized him. Among some team owners, confidence in him has been obliterated. Look at Mark Chipman’s sincerity in Winnipeg the other day. Look at everything the Seattle Kraken has done over the last year – with their hiring, the social justice initiatives, all the great work they have done. You think they watched that on Monday and felt proud to have Bettman as commissioner?

***

At times in the presser, the arrogance, the stubbornness was really something.

This one really stood out for me…

Joel Quenneville and 867 games coached.

Bettman took the time to jot down in his prep notes that Joel Quenneville had coached 867 games since 2010. Think about this for a second. Someone on his team looked that up so he could have a snappy response.

But Bettman didn’t take the time to think about how callous and clueless he was about to look explaining why Quenneville was allowed to coach that last game.

Bettman had the time for a pointless fact – who cares about that stat? – but couldn’t muster up the heart to do and say the right thing.

His ruling on Kevin Cheveldayoff is flat-out bonkers. Cheveldayoff admitted that as Chicago’s assistant GM he was in a meeting where it was shared that Aldrich had committed a crime. Regardless of any excuses, Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t do anything about it, but Bettman didn’t suspend him.

Bettman said over and over again that Cheveldayoff’s role in 2010 with the Blackhawks wasn’t major. He wrote it off as he was just a salary cap guy in an office somewhere. Yeah, Kevin was so behind the scenes in his little office that the Winnipeg Jets gave him the keys to the entire franchise and named him GM of the team. It just doesn’t add up.

There have been so many mistakes … the weak fine to the Blackhawks, the toothless layout of his plan to fix things, botching the Akim Aliu case … but how about the twisted reply when asked about Sheldon Kennedy?

The question to Bettman was whether the NHL would want to connect with Sheldon Kennedy and his company, The Respect Group.

Here was the only thing Bettman had to say: “Yes. Absolutely. Of course we would want to speak with Sheldon Kennedy.”

For some reason, he just could not bring himself to do that. He just couldn’t bring himself to do that. For Shedlson Kennedy. It was startling.

Now, and you can count on this too, the NHL will leak out to reporters how Bettman is going to sit down with a whole bunch of people to show he cares. That’s fine, but it really should be someone else. He’s already messed this up for too long.

This is about the Kyle Beach case, but is Bettman the leader you want in the coming years on any issue? Time and time again, he’s proven to be pretty bad at these things. His strange comments on women’s hockey, his failures on Social Impact … those and many more are issues for another day.

***

If Bettman watched the video of his performance Monday, and wasn’t honest enough with himself to be embarrassed over it, well…that’s sad.

As I’m taping this Thursday morning, he’s yet to clarify any remarks. So that means he stands by them. That’s all we can go by. He’s not clarifying anything. He’s good with it. At least not yet.

For many years, Bettman has ruled on the fate of people in hockey. Almost every time he was judge and jury, had the final vote or was a major influence on the decision.

League insiders will tell you that only a movement against him from team owners. That’s the only way. Bettman won’t do this himself. It’s going to take a big majority of owners to say Maybe it’s time.

But maybe the time has come for Gary Bettman to make a ruling on himself. If he truly cares about the sport, at some point in the very near future, he will tell the NHL’s Board of Governors to begin the search for his successor.

The owners, GMs and other members of the Board will give Bettman a loud standing ovation and a massive retirement gift for all he’s done. For them, he has been the right Commissioner.

For the NHL in this moment, in this era, and with no doubt many more allegations, difficult times and challenges ahead, Bettman is all wrong. It’s time for a new leader.