Book review: "The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever"

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever is an interesting history of the business side of the league leading up to and during Bettman's tenure. It's worth reading, but would be enjoyed most by readers with a keen interest in the off-ice affairs of the league and its teams.

When I first cracked the spine on The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever, I was expecting a semi-autobiographical account of Gary Bettman's life--and I was not expecting to enjoy it too much. But I was pleasantly surprised, as author Jonathon Gatehouse gave just enough detail about Bettman's life to offer context to his work as the NHL commissioner. From there, Gatehouse provides a history of the business-side of the NHL during Bettman's tenure that's tough to put down.

The book is chock-full of absorbing nuggets about the league in the last twenty years, all in thorough detail without getting boring. Even a ten-page section devoted to Brad Richards' most recent contract negotiations maintained my interest. Chestnuts about how close we came to a $60M government bailout of the Canadian NHL teams, how escrow has worked out from the players' perspective, how Mark Chipman convinced the commissioner to give Winnipeg another shot, and how the NHL's television deals have developed over the last 20 years stand out particularly in my mind.

From an Ottawa Senators fan perspective, too, it was good; the Sens are a pretty interesting case study among NHL teams, unique because it's a Canadian organization but also unique among Canadian organizations because of its surprising existence and the team's relatively recent bankruptcy. As a result, the team's mentioned numerous times through the book. In my mind, the most interesting Senators-related information relates to the effect of the 2005 CBA, specifically changes to restricted free agency and the salary cap, which I'll excerpt below:

"I have no hesitation in saying that we were probably hurt more than any other team in the league with that change," says Cyril Leeder, now the president of the Ottawa Senators and a senior executive with the club since its 1992 inception. "We had the best group of guys in that 23 to 27 age range and the new rules meant you couldn't keep them all." Marian Hossa was shipped to Atlanta for Dany Heatley just prior to the 2005-6 season. That next summer, the team signed centre Jason Spezza and defenceman Wade Redden to new contracts, but let another key rearguard, Zdeno Chara, walk off to Boston. Martin Havlat, a year away from free agency, was traded to Chicago. The rebuilt Senators were still good enough to make it to the Stanley Cup Final that season, but fell in five games to the Ducks. "Sometimes you've got to decide before you get there," says Leeder. "You can't have five guys making over $6 million. It's not going to work under this system."

The book also talks in some detail about the expansion process that resulted in Ottawa getting a franchise, the team's bankruptcy saga, and challenges associated with operating in a small Canadian business market.

My one major qualm with the book, though, is how Gatehouse doesn't hesitate to give Bettman credit for what he did right--growing the game in the USA, professionalizing its conduct, establishing cost-certainty for team owners, among other positives--he fails to examine the possibility that Bettman was, in many ways, his own worst enemy. No one can deny that Bettman's hugely grown the game and the business, but his willingness to lock out the players and cancel games have undoubtedly tempered that growth. Consider the fact that preceding each of his lockouts, an extremely marketable team won the Stanley Cup and gained significant momentum: In 1994, it was the New York Rangers, the NHL's biggest market; in 2004, it was the Tampa Bay Lightning, for whom a continuation of that momentum would have done wonders; and last season was the Los Angeles Kings, another of the league's biggest and most significant markets. The negative effects of the lockouts were in many ways mitigated by the insatiable appetite for pro hockey north of the border (Canada, as Gatehouse shows many times in the book, is the source of a hugely disproportionate amount of the NHL's revenues), but there's no denying that the league's market share and respectability were greatly diminished in the United States due to three lockouts. Although Bettman wasn't acting alone in those lockouts, he was the architect thereof, but Gatehouse seemed to accept the lockouts as necessary evils rather than avoidable mistakes.

On the other hand, Gatehouse refers to Donald Fehr explicitly as "the kind of guy who sticks to his principles, even when he probably shouldn't." If that criticism applies to Fehr, then it most certainly applies to Bettman (see: lockouts, Phoenix Coyotes, blacklisting of Jim Balsillie, and so on). Rightly or wrongly, Gatehouse seemed far more critical of Fehr and the NHLPA than he was of Bettman and the League.

But really, that's a pretty specific (and perhaps subjective) complaint. Overall, this book was quite enjoyable to read, written in a very accessible tone and just littered with great stories about fans, players, owners, agents, and general managers around the league. I'd recommend any hockey fan take a look at it, and especially those with an interest in the business of professional hockey.

*****

Note: Gatehouse recently published a review of the 2012 lockout in Maclean's magazine. It's called, "Gary Bettman is here to stay," and will give you a bit of a glimpse into his style, and might help you decide whether you want to take a look at The Instigator.

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