Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Gary Bettman Plays Poker

An unsophisticated player would move-in on him right there because he knows he can’t lose. But, what good is that? He’s only going to get a split. However, add some drama and a little acting to your play and there’s a chance you could win it all.
--Doyle Brunson, Super/System

Of all the names in hockey, very few have more nonsense said about them than Gary Bettman. People think he's a moron, or that he hates Canada, or that he secretly hates hockey and plans to bankrupt the sport. Typing certain curse words on the Calgary Flames message boards will have them changed to "Gary Bettman." Really, though, very little of what's said about him is true.

The man doesn't hate Canada, he just takes Canada for granted. He knows that Canadian markets will tend to sell out whether he does them favors or not, so he concentrates resources on breaking newer, larger markets. Hockey won't grow overnight in cities where it's not so big a deal. Canadians, who grow up loving hockey, tend to take that for granted, too. It's possible to win a city over, but it takes time. I'm not saying I agree with his ignoring Canada, because I don't. As a patriotic Canadian, I believe it's OUR game. Still, I'm not silly enough to believe he conspires against Canada. He just doesn't care.

The man's certainly not a moron. He tends to win prolonged legal battles, even though he comes out looking slimy in the process. Doing so takes a requisite amount of shrewdness. The man uses leverage like no other. Gary Bettman is a poker player.

Take, for example, all the noise he's making about the Luongo contract. More than a few Canucks fans have wondered why Luongo is the big name mentioned, instead of Hossa, Savard, Pronger or the like. Is it just a coincidence, fans ask, that he goes after the player in the Canadian market?

Nope. In this case, he's definitely targeting the Vancouver player, but not for the reason you might think. Like the perennial poker great Doyle Brunson, Bettman knows a well-timed bluff can pay off big time.

Bettman fought for a limit to contract length during the lockout and lost, but he knew that cap circumventing contracts like Kovalchuk's, Hossa's, and (yes) Luongo's would happen. Now that he's won an arbitration hearing, he's looking to use his position to muscle the NHLPA into submission.

Bettman won't void Luongo's contract. He's not in the business of losing court battles, and he'd definitely lose this one. Even if Luongo's contract was as bad as Kovalchuk's, because it's been registered for a year, both Mike Gillis and Luongo himself would have legitimate grievances should the contract be voided -- Luongo made financial moves expecting to be paid 10 million for the 2010-2011 season, and Gillis signed several contracts expecting Luongo to have a 5.33 cap hit. If the NHL were to void Luongo's contract, Gillis could argue that every contract he signed since should be revisited.

That's a fight Bettman doesn't want, because he may very well lose, and Bettman isn't in the business of losing court battles.

So why make a fuss? While Bettman doesn't want the court battle, he's betting that a weak NHLPA doesn't want it either. By threatening to come down on these contracts, Bettman is putting the pressure on the PA.

So why target Luongo? Because he needed a ruckus, and if there's one thing Canadian hockey fans do, it's make a ruckus. Every time there's Luongo news, most of Vancouver gets angry. Targeting Luongo makes plenty of noise, without the NHL actually doing anything. To date, all they've done is make threats -- threats they've got no intention of following through on -- and still, without any action, Canucks fans are still up in arms.

Of course, it didn't go quite as planned. Seriously, Vancouver, stop slagging your goaltender. A good portion of the reaction has been, "Oh, good, now we can go after a cheaper goaltender." Some Vancouver fans are silly, but that's another blog entirely.

When it comes down to it, Bettman isn't going to void Luongo's contract. He's not going to go after Hossa, either, and tarnish a Cup victory. Bettman doesn't care about Luongo's contract nearly as much as he cares about putting a stop to these deals in the future. He's going to be fighting the NHLPA tooth and nail to uphold the spirit of the salary cap, and I expect him to win.


  1. We have a winner. I swear to you, I was going to write this exact article this morning. Now I don't have to!

    I'm gonna go get some strawberry milk.

  2. Better-than-average minds think similarly. I started writing an article about this last night but saw one had already been posted. Nice work, Qris. Dead on.

  3. maybe you should all write your like-themed articles and then the readers can vote on the best one. then there can be equal parts praise and mocking for the winners and losers. bonus points for using the phrase 'bettman is a man-toad'


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