So if I'm Gary Bettman, I'm an abhorent toad, a disagreeable little twerp who got to be that way because in school I got bullied constantly, because back then I was a toad and a little twerp. But that's neither here nor there.
So if I'm Gary Bettman, I'm currently spending every waking hour scheming against the players, preparing for a lockout to hammer down the players from a current 57% share of the revenue down to 50%. I'm doing so with no real justification, after all league revenues are growing every year, money is pouring in, but my hero/buddy who never returns my calls David Stern did it to his bunch of selfish crybaby millionaires, so I want to show him I can do it too.
But if I'm Gary Bettman, what I really should be doing is working in partnership with my partners the players, like I said I would, to grow the game and the revenue pie so that everybody wins, the owners, the fans, my partners the players... They're my partners, I said so after the lockout back in 2005. When I say something I mean it. Look past the smarmy rictus that I pass off as a smile, and you'll see I'm being honest.
So if I'm Gary Bettman, I trundle into the boardroom at the next General Managers meeting, reach way, way up with my briefcase and just manage to slide it onto the table, then hop up on a footstool which allows me to jump onto my chair at the head of the table. I reach into the box of pastries with both hands and pull out a Timbit, which I proceed to take huge bites of while I exchange pained, rote pleasantries with GM's in the immediate vicinity, waiting for everyone to file in and take their seats. Once they're all settled in, I clear my throat and address the crowd.
"Okay I asked to address the General Managers at these meetings because we need to take the game in a new direction. You guys are in charge of reviewing the rules of play, and you tinker and you finagle, but while you're fiddling Rome burns. Hockey is growing, but a lot of that is due to social media and the zillion channel universe and the PVR. Live sports on TV as a whole are booming, but we're not keeping pace with other sports, so we need to address that.
"I'm going to give you some clear direction of where I want you to take NHL hockey. The objectives I will give you will be clear and measurable, and you will achieve them or...
"Burkie! Stop messing with your tie! Leave it on or take it off! Decide and stick with it!"
A voice from the back of the room is heard: "I have a pretty good tie that used to be highly prized, it's barely out of fashion, if he's interested I can let him have it for..."
I interrupt: "Chiarelli, stop messing with Brian. He'll rent a barn for you just as soon as he'd rent one for Kevin Lowe.
"Anyway, as I was saying, I want to increase the popularity of the game, and I want you guys to make it happen by reaching these targets.
"First, the average goals scored per game per team was around two and a half. I want that north of four, so that by the end of the 2013-14 season, we have at least one eighty-goal scorer a season, a couple of seventy-goals scorers, and at least half the teams in the league with a fifty goal scorer in their lineup. I don't care how you make it happen."
"Um, I don't know how that's possible," says Dale Tallon, scanning his reserve list and annual budget. He has a bunch of hockey cards in various groups and piles on the table in front of him, and he starts to energetically switch them around, swapping one here for three there and furiously shuffling the decks.
"Look," I say, "whenever I watched a period this year, I'd see lots of shooting, but nothing going in the net. Hell, there was this guy Cal Gill, played for the Devils I think, I'd see him lying on the ice during the penalty kill. Make him stop doing that. Make the guys who shoot able to shoot more and score more."
"It's not that easy," says Chuck Fletcher, "some teams are coached with a philosophy to stop goals from being scored, instead of trying to generate goals. These teams usually don't have the talent to compete with the skilled skating teams, so they..."
"Well stop them from stopping so many goals. Hell the other day, I came across this book." I pause theatrically and snap open my briefcase. I rummage through the mass of documents, contracts between Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider and me, envelopes with pictures of Brendan Shanahan and Alyonka Larionov, and pull out the NHL Rulebook and hold it up triumphantly.
"So I was flipping through it, and I don't understand, but a lot of the stuff that's in here and is supposed to be illegal, it happens all the time when I'm watching games. I don't know if I'm catching the wrong five minutes, but it says there's no tripping allowed, but I see players tripping each other all the time. During the five minutes I'm watching. Same goes for holding, lots of holding going on. Boarding, elbowing, spearing, that's all I see, but what I don't see is your referees enforcing the NHL Rulebook.
"The thing is, Mr. Bettman," says Director of Officiating Terry Gregson, breaking the uncomfortable silence in the room, everyone acting as if I'd sopped up the drool on Colin Campbell's chin with the rest of my Timbit and popped it into my mouth, "with respect, uh, to your full grasp of the nuances of the game of hockey, what the referees do is try to strike a balance between offence and defence, and not inject themselves too much into the game..."
"Defence? We're trying to strike a balance for defence? You morons, what other sport out there favours defence over offence? Football is all about the long bomb to wide receivers! Who's the stars in football? Cinco de Mayo, and T.O., the Jerry Rice of Wide Receivers, those guys are the stars. Not the guys who try to stop them, not the guys who do the tackling. I was talking to David Stern, and he was saying when they were changing rules, they were writing them with Magic and Jordan and Bird in mind, not Bill Laimbeer. Who the hell buys a ticket or tunes in to watch Bill Laimbeer? So why do we want to balance it out? I say tilt the balance in favour of Magic and Bird, that's what you guys are going to do, and get me an 80 goal-scorer."
"I think I understand what you're saying," Steve Tambellini says, "and we're actually moving in that direction. For example, we've been discussing the hand pass for a couple of seasons now, and I think we have it settled that..."
"Tambellini, you 'understand'," and here I do the air quotes with my fingers, and I really slay him, "as well as your team does in the standings! Hand pass?!! Enough with the handpass! You guys are killing me with the handpass! I've had it. My nephews are always asking me about the handpass, why it's not allowed but somehow everyone's always grabbing the puck with their glove and pushing it there or to that guy, and why there's never a penalty, and I don't know what to tell them. All those guys have sticks, why don't they use them? It's so simple: touch the puck with your hand, you get a three minute penalty....
"What's that Terry? Two-minute penalty? Fine, fine, whatever, the thing is back in the day when I couldn't snag a Knick ticket and had to watch a Rangers game, there was this guy with curly hair, kind of a dude, he dated supermodels, Steve Vickers was his name I think, and he'd take the puck out of the air, but drop it on the ice and play it with his stick right away, and that was cool, and everyone got that, but...
"What's that Glen? Ron Duguay? Whatever, the thing is, enough with the hand pass and tinkering, I want you guys to think big. Get me some goals. Work on things like offsides. Whenever something cool is about to happen, some guy is skating fast with the puck and I tell myself that 'Hey, hockey can be pretty exciting', something happens and the whistle goes and apparently it's offside or something, and I change the channel to the Heat game . My nephews always ask me, what's offside, what's a delayed offside, and I don't know what to tell them. Why don't we relax about the offsides. Let these guys get going instead of making them stop at all those lines everywhere, and have these boring faceoffs that take forever."
"Well, Gary," George McPhee tries to explain, "if we didn't have the offside rules, some guys who don't play hockey the way it should be played might be tempted to just loaf in front of the opposite goalie and not backcheck, and just wait for the puck there. So the offsides force those guys to come back into their zone, and then the whole team has to break out as a unit."
"Again with that thing about backchecking. You guys are obsessed. When Michael Jordan was dribbling the ball and about to either pass it or shoot a three or blow past some guy and go in for a dunk, do you think other GM's were dreaming up rules to force his opponents to play better defence? Do you think the fans wished that Joe Dumars could grab his jersey a fraction more, or get away with an elbow to his teeth once in a while? No, everyone who was involved in basketball in any way knew that Jordan scoring fifty in a game was the best thing for the game.
"Anyway, here we are, we build big buildings with big icesheets, yet you guys want everyone backchecked and forechecked and clumped together like a frigging dogpile. Whenever I tune in, I see a couple of minutes of a cluster in the corner, and then it moves into the other corner, and then the goalie freezes the puck and now there's a cluster in front of the goalie, and then I see a lot of cross-checking and spearing and punching, but never a frigging penalty. So instead of backchecking and dogpiles in the corner George, why don't we try to use the entire 500 ft of ice we have and pay for?...
"What's that Terry? 200 ft? Anyway, if you want to prevent someone from loafing in front of the other team's net while the puck is in his end, why don't you write a rule about that, instead of these stupid offsides that always stop the play. When I watch the Penguins, I want to see Crosby and Malvechkin racing down the ice and catching long stretching passes, not whistles and faceoffs. I want to see long bombs from the quarterback, not mucking in the corners.
"I was talking to David Stern, and he says their rule on illegal defences works like gangbusters. Why don't we do that, have an 'illegal offence' rule, we see a guy loafing, that's a penalty, and we actually call the penalty, Terry.
"Another thing that made me spit up my Yoo-hoo when I was reading your 'rulebook'," and I do the air quotes again, 'cause I'm really on a roll, "is that you guys allow slashing, as long as it's not too bad. I couldn't believe my eyes. I had to read it again, but there it was, plain as day, Rule 61.1. I'm going to read it to you guys, so you know what I'm talking about. It says: Slashing is the act of a player swinging his stick at an opponent, whether contact is made or not. Non-aggressive stick contact to the pant or front of the shin pads, should not be penalized as slashing. Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the Referee, is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing."
"You guys are all nodding like this makes sense! I just told you I want more scoring, and you're going to allow players to slash each other? And have Terry's group of talented, dedicated refs," and I nail it, I say it with a straight face, "make the decision whether it's aggressive or non-aggressive? Don't these guys struggle with all the rules already? Shouldn't we lighten the load? This is the pulling and tugging on Jordan's jersey I was talking about, you guys are writing it into the rulebook with the non-forceful chop and the contacting the pants! Isn't it easier to just say the stick is for playing the puck? If it touches the other player that's not allowed? How simple is that? Won't that make Crosby and Stamkhouse and all the other great players I could name off the top of my head score more goals if they're not getting slashed constantly? Because if I watch a game for five minutes, and believe me I do, that's all I see, is these guys getting slashed and diced. Get rid of that interpretation. Get me some goals."
Everyone is quiet, they're taking it in. Dean Lombardi looks a little pale. Garth Snow is agitated, his hair in tangles, he's wiping his shiny forehead on his threadbare lapel.
"Everything okay Garth?"
"Uh, sir yes sir, Mr. Commissioner, your highness. It's just that, uh..."
"Spit it out son."
"Um, shouldn't we talk to the owners about this?" He's frantically typing on his cellphone. Holy crap, is that a Palm Treo? I think it's got duct-tape on it!
"Garth, I have the full support of ownership on this. They want more revenue, as long as that happens, they wouldn't care if we started playing lacrosse."
"I don't know if it's possible," says Jim Rutherford, doubtfully, giving me an anxious look, "to increase scoring this much, without doing something crazy like making the nets bigger."
"Well let's make the nets bigger, for crying out loud! I don't care if they are!" Rutherford is crushed. Doug Armstrong looks like he's about to faint. I decide to pile it on.
"Actually, it's probably high time we made them bigger. Just the other day, I was introduced to Anil Francis, apparently he used to play goal for the Rangers. The guy is tiny, a pipsqueak, he barely towers over me, and the guy was a pro goaltender. Have you seen the size of goalies nowadays? Pecker Reenay looks like Shaq! He's three times the size of goaltenders from the fifties, when hockey was invented.
"In baseball, they move the mound back or forward if the pitchers or the hitters start having too much of an advantage. Well in our game, the goalies have too much of an advantage. Let's move the goalposts out a bit."
The room is stunned. I can hear the air coming out of the HVAC system. Snow is having a meltdown. I continue while I have the floor.
"Anyway, the second thing you guys are going to work on is injuries. This season we just finished up, we lost 1700 man games due to head injuries. On 90 players. That's way, way high. And you know what, the guys sitting on the sidelines don't come cheap, there's guys like Chris Pronger, Sidney Crosby, Bryan Miller... Cripes, Mark Savant is still on the Boston payroll, he hasn't played in years.
"Garth, you were asking about the owners, well they don't like paying salaries to guys who are sitting out. So you and your colleagues, you're going to slash that number by half. So we say 1700 man-games, half of that is 850, and let's round down to make it an easier number to work with, so let's say 800. 800 man games is your objective gentlemen, make it happen."
"How are we going to get that done?" It's David Poile, and he's livid. "It's not an achievable target. Hell, I tried to do my part, I cut Tootoo loose, but Ken Holland here just goes and snaps him right up, and now we have to play against him and his friggin' elbows six times a year plus playoffs. I mean, I love the kid like a son, after all he's been through, but he plain can't play hockey!"
"Look, you're just going to have to make it work. You guys are always fiddling with the hand pass and the icing and the delayed offside, can't you fiddle with the delayed crosscheck in the teeth, and the fist pass to the back of the head after the whistle's gone and we've already gone to commercial?
"They tell me when Gretzky played, no one would hit him, and people thought the League and the refs wouldn't allow it, like it was some big conspiracy or something. Well I don't mind that at all, let's do that. If anyone touches Crosby or Jee-Roo or Datshook, they go to the box. How about we establish that as a league, that you can't hammer on the guys who make us all rich? Think about that angle gentlemen.
"But a lot of it is going to be easy. For example, I don't want to see things like Keith Duncan going after one of the Sundin twins again, that was kind of dodgy, and I don't know if we convinced everyone that we handled it properly Brendan. Brendan? Brendan! Put the camera down, pay attention! So we have to edumacate the players, make sure they understand, the point of the game is to put the puck in the net, not to separate the other guy from his brain."
"Well Gary," says Bryan Murray, and I try to keep a straight face, even with his lisp, "we can bring down the games lost due to concussions, but the suspensions will spike up like crazy, we'll have problems putting a team together with all the guys suspended. So we're just robbing Peter to pay Paul."
"Geez, I know GM's are mostly former players, you're not like rocket scientists and economics majors. Right Réjean? Réjean?... What's that Bill? He's not here anymore? Who? Mark? Marc? Since when? Pierre who?...
"Anyway, like I was trying to say, figure it out, Einsteins. If a star player is out injured, that's $5M or more in salary that the owner is paying for a guy who isn't on the ice and not drawing in viewers and spectators and selling hotdogs and jerseys and beers, and so on. But if a player is suspended, it's most likely a chump who's pulling in a million or less, one of those 'checkers' you guys are so fascinated with somehow, no one cares, the fans still watch. And that chump's salary is paid into the Former Players Emergency Assistance Fund," and I do well here, I catch myself and don't do the air quotes.
"So we don't care if players get suspended, we want fewer injuries in general, and fewer head injuries in particular. Go to town gentlemen, on this one you don't have two seasons, you have one. Next April, we'll have less than 800 games lost due to head injuries, and if it means a zillion suspensions and a zillion in fines, that I don't care about. Got it Brendan?"
"I don't know if that's going to be enough Mr. Bettman." It's Scott Howson. Somehow, he seems perched precariously on the chair, like he's about to be unseated. He's grimly, barely hanging on. "It will take a long time to change players' habits."
"Look, you guys are the experts, you're the ones in charge of the rules, you come up with the answers. There's other things to try. Bob Cherry was snarling at me the other day about soft padding on equipment. That makes sense to me, don't have the guys' elbows wrapped in steel and dunked in concrete, maybe they don't swing them around so much. Try that. Shouldn't take you too long."
"Shouldn't we contact the owners on this?" Garth Snow again. He's in a flop sweat. "I'd hate to make a decision. I mean, we'd hate to make a rash decision. We should really call the owners. Let's call the owners..." He's put down the pieces of his Palm, and now is reaching for the house phone on the wall behind him.
"Garth, Garth, I've spoken to Charles personally, and he told me to tell you that you don't need to do anything, I've already got his okay, I'll cast his vote for you."
He slumps back in his chair, relieved. He takes out a Bic pen and a Texas instrument calculator out of his crumpled paper shopping bag and starts to write on a curiously large stack of hotel stationery.
"Okay, the third thing is you guys as a group are going to get me is a 20% increase in TV ratings in three years. I think this one's a gimme for you guys. If you do the first two things I asked you, this one will follow automatically. But I want you to show me your plan for an increase in eyeballs, irrespective of the increase in excitement due to more stars actually being on the ice and scoring more.
"I want you guys to showcase the stars. I want someone going after Wayne Gretzky's records, and the same hype there was for Mark McGwire when he went after Roger Maris' record. I want you to make these guys household names in the States like they are up in Canada.
"I was talking with David Stern the other day, and he was raving about meeting a nice young man, Jarome Iginla. I wrote the name down, found out apparently he plays for Calgary. Anyway David couldn't stop raving about what a great kid this rookie is. Pipe down Bill, let me finish! Anyway, David said this kid had a good posture, clean cut, handsome face, nice smile, firm handshake, well-spoken, and anyway he was jealous of us, can you believe it, the guy envies us that we have a great young player like that as a representative of our game. He went on and on about how after Steve Nash and Grant Hill and Dirk Nowitzki, it's pretty slim picking in his league, it's all tattoos and tough guy attitude and gangbanger wannabes.
"So I asked around, 'cause this kind of twigged me, and everyone kind of agrees, everyone I ask, that NHL players are the good guys, the nicest guys of any team sports. So why don't we promote that? We should have these guys front and centre, on every show and every magazine and on Oprah. If our guys are scoring a bunch and the games are exciting and there's a buzz around hockey, we'll have our guys on Carson instead of baseball players.
"So that's it boys, there's your mission. I want scoring to increase to greater than four goals per game per team on average, so we have one 80 goal-scorer in the league as a minimum in two seasons time. I want head injuries to drop below 800 man games lost by next season. And I'm giving you three years to increase our TV ratings by twenty percent."
"Or else what?" barks Brian Burke pugnaciously. He's been fulminating belligerently all meeting long.
"Or else, you guys aren't in charge of the rules anymore, I'll hand it over to a committee made up of Viktor Tikhonov, Ken Dryden, Roy McGregor and Cassie Campbell."
"Help me down," I say to Bill Daly while the room pulses with cries of anguish and howls of outrage, "and hand me my briefcase. If I hurry, I may be able to catch David at the office before he heads out to lunch. I don't know what it is, I get there earlier and earlier every day, but somehow I always miss him."