Of all the things necessary to fix the NHL, step # 1 is simple: Fire Gary Bettman.
Bettman has been NHL commissioner since February 1, 1993. Since that time, the league has hit a series of low points, including 2 major work stoppages, the loss of national television revenue, an increase in the amount of goonism in the game, poor expansion strategy, unstable owners, the neutral-zone trap, and a lack of respect for the league's history, among other things. All this has led to a league that was ready for a breakthrough into the mainstream in the early 1990s to a league that is on the verge of slipping into complete irrelevance in less than 15 years. How did this all happen? Let's start at the beginning.
When Gary Bettman took over the NHL, he became its first commissioner (the head of the NHL to that point had been the league president). After having spent most of his career in the NBA, where he rose to third in command, the NHL hired him to replace interim president Gil Stein. Bettman worked in the legal and marketing departments in the NBA, and was one of the people involved in developing the NBA's salary cap. This was key to the NHL owners, who had just gone through the first work stoppage in league history, a 10-day strike late in the 1991-92 regular season. The strike was a victory for the players, but the CBA that was signed lasted for only one season. The owners fired then-NHL President John Ziegler and replaced him with Stein on an interim basis. Bettman was eventually hired with the goal of instituting a salary cap in the NHL.
The 1993-94 season was arguably the high point for the league in at least the past 30 years, if not ever. Hockey was on the verge of becoming a true major player in American sports, due partly to the Rangers' drive to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years (and the resulting media attention); expansion to new markets in California (San Jose and Anaheim--with the resulting backing of Disney, who named their team the Mighty Ducks after their hit movie franchise), Florida (Florida and Tampa Bay), and Ottawa; and a surge in merchandise sales due to the expansion teams, as well as crossovers such as rappers wearing hockey sweaters during videos, giving the league exposure to a new audience. However, the seeds of the league's downfall were also in place.
Bettman, who had never even BEEN to a game before taking over as commissioner, showed his lack of hockey knowledge by snubbing his nose at league tradition by changing the name of the conferences (Wales and Campbell) and divisions (Patrick, Adams, Norris, and Smythe), which honored some of the league's founding fathers, to generic geographical names, taken right from the NBA. He also tried to turn the NHL into the NBA on Ice by taking steps to remove fighting from the game, angering fans and creating disciplinary problems on the ice. The league also played without a CBA in place during the season, and when the NHLPA wouldn't agree to a salary cap, Bettman locked the players out right before the start of the 1994-95 season. When an agreement was finally reached, half the season had been wiped out. The league, which had signed a new national TV contract with FOX to begin showing games that season, suffered a blow that it still has not recovered from.
Even after losing half the season, Bettman and the owners had only managed to get a salary cap on rookies, and not on all players. The CBA was eventually extended to the 2004-05 season, when the league decided to make another push for a salary cap. Backed by hardline teams such as Chicago and Boston, the NHL gave Bettman the right to veto any offer from the union as long as just 8 of the 30 owners backed him. The league's insistence on a salary cap eventually cost them the entire season, as the NHL became the first pro sports league to lose an entire season to labor issues.
By this point, the league suffered a major blow to it's revenue, as NBC was only willing to do a revenue-sharing deal with the NHL, instead of paying a rights-fee upfront (putting the NHL on par with Arena Football as far as American network TV was concerned). Also, ESPN declined the option on their contract with the NHL, causing Bettman to take the league from a basic cable staple seen in almost every household in the country to Vs. (the recently renamed Outdoor Life Network), which is a much smaller network lacking ESPN's availability. This loss of television revenue has also caused teams to shift more of the cost burden onto fans attending games.
And let's not forget that just last week, the NHL was forced to alter its playoff schedule due to a Yanni concert. Yes, you read that right.
I don't want to go too long in this post, and I'll go into greater detail in future posts about the following topics:
What else has Bettman done? He's pushed for eliminating fighting in the game, which angers hockey fans, as well led to an increase of ugly on-ice incidents due to the players' inability to use fighting to police the game because of the stricter penalties. Out of the 10 longest suspensions in NHL history (handed down due to cheap shots by players), 9 of them have come in the last 15 years under Bettman's regime. While incidents such as this have unfortunately happened throughout the history of the game, they have increased as the league has cracked down on fighting.
The NHL has also done a half-assed job when handling expansion. After seeing the revenue rush into the league coffers in the form of expansion fees and new merchandise sales from the early 1990's expansion, the NHL rushed to add more teams and relocate existing teams into new markets in the American South, relying on the retirees living there to support the new teams, a strategy which has, for the most part, failed. While trying (and failing) to grow an American audience, he's done nothing but spit at the league's Canadian fans.
The league has also had problems with owners (and potential owners). Bruce McNall, who owned the Kings during their glory days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was sentenced to 70 months in prison due to fraud, and the Kings were forced to file for bankruptcy due to his dealings. Disney bailed on the league, selling the Ducks at a loss in 2005. The Penguins went into bankruptcy, forcing Mario Lemieux to take ownership of the franchise because they couldn't afford to pay him. The Islanders have been gimping along trying to get a new arena built for a decade now. The Predators and Thrashers are struggling. The NHL is currently in a court battle with Phoenix owner Jerry Moyes to see who controls the Coyotes. And Bettman has been carrying a years-long feud to keep Jim Balsillie, CEO of the company that makes BlackBerry smartphones, out of the league. Balsillie is currently trying to buy the Coyotes out of bankruptcy and move them to Hamilton, Ontario, after being blocked from buying the Penguins and Predators.
A major on-ice issue that emerged during the Bettman Era was the use of the neutral-zone trap, in which teams would score a goal to take a lead, then clutch-and-grab opposing players in the neutral zone (and pretty much all over the ice) in order to prevent them from moving the puck and be able to score. This led to a steep reduction in scoring, and a very boring style of hockey to watch. This style of play, which took hold in the mid-1990s, was not addressed for 10 years, with rules to crack down on it going into effect during the first season back from the lockout. Somehow, I can't imagine the NFL letting something like that go on for so long.
Then there was his suspension of Sean Avery for his "sloppy seconds" comment earlier this season. While I am not a fan of Avery at all, and yeah, it was a crude comment, it did not merit a 6-game suspension (which was announced as "indefinite" at first). While there's a LOT things Avery's done in his career that could've merited suspension, this was the least of them--but it's the one Bettman went after.
While there is one--and only one--thing I'll give Bettman credit for (The Winter Classic), even THAT'S tainted by the fact that he told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year that he didn't see it as something the league would do every year. Bettman HAS to go. This league can never succeed to it's true potential as long as he's in charge.
My choice to replace him: Flyers owner Ed Snider. He knows hockey, having been in the league over 40 years as the Flyers' founding owner, and has turned them from one of the "Second Six" in a non-hockey town to one of the strongest franchises in the league. Hockey went through an incredible rate of growth during the Flyers early years, and they continue to try to create new fans, going as far as taking over the operation of city-owned rinks in Philadelphia when the city was going to shut them down due to budget problems. They also run clinics for inner-city kids to expose them to the game, as well as promote youth hockey throughout the Philadelphia area.