November 4, 2004

Bungling Bettman

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Some schools should be sued for fraud. Yale, of course, should be sued for giving a degree to George W. Bush, a known nitwit. George Washington High School in New York City should be shut down for graduating Manny Ramirez, a lamentably backward man. And our own beloved Cornell is not immune. Cornell once bestowed a degree on Gary Bettman ’72 — possibly the most feebleminded person ever to walk past our gorges without falling in. This ILR graduate is now commissioner of what was once the National Hockey League. They say you can learn all you need to know about someone if you play hockey against him for two hours, but you’ll never learn anything about Bettman that way. Our Cornell alumnus-commissioner has simply never played the game.

He doesn’t seem to like the guys who do play the game — like current Toronto Maple Leafs center Joe Nieuwendyk ’88. Joe was in town last weekend cheering as the Red opened up its season with two thrilling victories at Lynah Rink. The contests featured all the things that make the game of hockey second to none — an explosive offense, jaw dropping, edge-of-your-seat saves and even a few punches thrown in for good measure.

What was Joe doing in town? As the Red was dismantling Army, 7 – 1, Joe should have been playing in his own game for the Leafs against the Carolina Hurricanes. Our two-time Olympian and Stanley Cup champion was supposed to be clashing sticks with bruising veteran Rod Brind’Amour and blasting the puck past goaltender Martin Gerber at the RBC Center down in Raleigh.

However, thanks to Commissioner Bettman, Brind’Amour was home in Ottawa and Nieuwendyk was in Ithaca. As of this week, Bettman had canceled 430 NHL games while he tries to force the players to accept an owner-friendly, fixed cap labor contract. He told a Canadian interviewer this week that, “the season is likely to slip away. We’ll see you next season or whenever.”

The Cornell graduate’s cavalier disregard for the players and the game could not have had more miserable timing. The 2004 Stanley Cup Finals were the lowest-rated in the history of televised hockey (the Tampa Bay Lightning won, by the way). There has been a plague of off-ice court battles, on-ice violence, salary arbitration fiascos and a fan base that was withering even before the lockout.

What is Bettman thinking? The NHL needs heroes, not lawyers. It needs its spectacular drama to explode on the ice — not to be forgotten in stuffy boardrooms. It needs fresh air — not the stale groans of greedy owners.

“Everyone certainly realizes hockey is not as healthy right now as it once was,” Nieuwendyk said before practice Monday with the men’s team. “There is a core group of fans that will still be there when this is all over, but some fans may not come back at all.”

Bettman’s “shock and awe” policy is designed to bring desperate players to their knees. While 241 NHL players have signed with European teams (most in their home towns), a great number remain unemployed.

“It’s not a good situation that we’re in,” fellow Cornell hockey alumnus Stephen Baby ’03 said. “This is a system that filters itself down. There are guys at every level losing their jobs.” Baby, an Atlanta Thrashers draft pick, is making a modest income with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL — but his dreams of playing in the bigs are on indefinite hold. For the moment, at least, professional hockey is no longer a way to make a decent living.

“The NHL players are going to find ways to make money to support their families,” Nieuwendyk said. “These kids [at Cornell] just need to keep progressing in their careers and be fresh for when the league resumes.”

Most college players still want to play professional hockey at the highest level.

“Hockey is what I’m passionate about,” said senior Cornell captain and Maple Leafs draft pick Mike Knoepfli. “I’m not ready to settle into a day job.”

Yet, if players do indeed have to get day jobs, it doesn’t hurt to have a Cornell education. “The education was a huge factor for me coming here,” said freshman winger and Dallas Stars second-round pick Raymond Sawada. “Just knowing that if you get hurt or something happens where you can no longer play, you can always still find a job making just as much money as you would have playing hockey.”

Agreeing that a Cornell education is of great importance, Baby also looked to the hundreds of hockey players who never went to college.

“Who knows how long I will be able to play hockey?” he asked. “If this doesn’t work out, there are always other opportunities. Other guys don’t have that.”

Always a class act, celebrated NHL star Nieuwendyk has been helping the Red forwards with a few moves and keeping goaltender David McKee sharp with a blistering slap shot. But Joe is anxious to get back on his own ice.

“I’m at the point in my career where I really enjoy being around the younger guys and seeing their work ethic and enthusiasm for the game,” he said. “But the NHL is the only option for me. Most players just want to play.”

Unfortunately, they won’t be playing for a while. Especially not if Bettman has his way. He sits like Harry Lime on a giant Ferris wheel and Nieuwendyk, Baby, Knoepfli, and Sawada are nothing but meaningless dots below. His “take-no-prisoners” approach to labor relations will kill the NHL as we know it. The man who never played the game is skating over the dreams of every kid who ever wanted to win the Stanley Cup.

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen