Discounting certain elitist NHL owners who put self-interest and financial expediency ahead of the game, one can safely say NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is not the most popular guy around hockey circles these days. Having engineered an unprecedented third lockout in 18 years, mainly due to ill-advised league expansion, Bettman still maintains the confidence of his employers. I have heard about being too big fail, but being too stupid to fail?
Okay, Bettman is not that stupid, as he did get American cities who have no interest in hockey to shell out taxpayer money to build new sports arenas. Now that these teams are no longer economically sustainable, taxpayers will once again eventually end up holding the bag for an empty and useless arena. With such sales of high priced “lemons” to unsuspecting clients, it is not difficult to see why the owners would want to keep a glorified used car salesman around – regardless of his lack of popularity.
Being a league commissioner has never been a popularity contest. Individuals such as Bowie Kuhn, Bud Selig, John Ziegler and even Bettman’s mentor, David Stern, have experienced the wrath of the public on a number of occasions. When you have to uphold the interests of a group of individuals who see sports fans as dairy cattle, your popularity ratings are destined to take a hit after all that herding and milking.
Regardless of being Public Undesirable #1, it is highly unlikely Bettman will ever have to absorb the hits a previous NHL Commissioner received in Montreal on a Saint Patrick’s Day in 1955. The incident involving Clarence Campbell and Montreal fans in the Forum on the evening of March 17, was a key part of a chain of events which would lead to the Richard Riot, one of the worst in NHL history.
Just one day previous, Campbell had suspended Montreal Canadiens star player Maurice “Rocket” Richard for the remainder of the season due to his multiple violent outbursts in a game versus the Boston Bruins at the Garden on March 13. Displaying poor judgment (must be a job requirement for commish), Campbell arrived at a tense Forum one day after issuing the unpopular suspension order to watch the game between the Habs and the Detroit Red Wings. Well, let’s just say he should have stayed home.
After his arrival at the arena, Campbell was booed and beaned with various debris by the fans for approximately six minutes. The abuse did not end there. A more enterprising fan approached Campbell as if he wanted to shake his hand. When Campbell reached out his hand, he was slapped and punched by the fan, who was eventually hauled away by police. Now that’s taking a real hit for your tanked popularity.
One tear gas bomb later, the Forum was evacuated, the game forfeited by the Habs and a riot of epic proportions erupted outside of the arena. Civilians and police officers sustained bodily injury, property was set on fire and damaged and French-Anglo tensions flared because Campbell did not heed constructive advice to stay home alone. Accentuating his poor decision to attend the game, Campbell had even been issued death threats prior to the incident.
There is little chance the vitriol that former commissioner Campbell had to endure will ever be experienced by Bettman for flushing yet another NHL season down the toilet. However, the Richard Riot taught us that an unpopular commissioner is more apt to destroy the game’s image, rather than improve it.