What Kris Versteeg Said and How Who Said It Matters

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Kris Versteeg of the Florida Panthers is the latest in a string of NHL players to denounce league leadership using some pretty intense language. Versteeg doesn’t bother tiptoeing around the issue or tempering what he said–he just comes on out and says that he feels commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly are like cancerous tumors that need to be removed from the body that is the NHL.

In a radio interview (full audio available at that link) with a Toronto-based TSN station, Versteeg said:

“You’ve got to cut out the cancers and I think when you look at Bill Daly and Bettman, they’ve been polluting this game for far too long.” Versteeg figures the operation needs to be done for the benefit of the fans. “[They've] been left with too many bad tastes in their mouths for too many years, and I think when this is all said and done, it’ll be a good time to finally make that happen.”

This comes not long after Ian White of the Detroit Red Wings used strong language to describe his feelings about Bettman, being quoted as saying he personally feels the commissioner is “an idiot. Since he’s come in, I think he’s done nothing but damage the game.”

Many other players have expressed their feelings about the lockout. Teemu Selanne weighed in by way of a Finnish-language blog post. Martin St. Louis joked that he was taught to not say anything if he had nothing nice to say. Shawn Horcoff said Bettman has “pissed…off” the players. Jonathan Toews is on the record. Zach Parise said that Bettman loves his lockouts, a line as simple as Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again” comment in 1980 but perhaps just as meaningful. Tomas Vokoun, who once lived in a socialist nation, said that not even in a socialist nation would this sort of thing happen.
When players speak out, they often refer to the commissioner as just Gary instead of Mr. Bettman or Mr. Commissioner, which shows a lack of respect for him.
But of course Versteeg is coming under fire for what he said. Part of it, I feel, is due to the fact that he isn’t exactly the game’s biggest star. He’s a well-liked guy and Stanley Cup champion with a lot of fans–including Rant’s NHL network manager Randy Holt–and he gets paid fairly well, but he’s no Crosby, Toews, Malkin or Ovechkin in terms of popularity.
What if one of those four spoke out as strongly as White or Versteeg? What if Sidney Crosby offered to scrub in and become Dr. Crosby, saying that the Bettman and Daly tumors need removal? What if Evgeni Malkin offered to help suture up after the removal? Would backlash be so severe if the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, ditched the optimistic statements and called out Bettman and Fehr too? Am I taking this medical metaphor too far?
Even to a casual observer who merely reads the Wikipedia page about NHL lockouts and sees the common thread–Bettman was commissioner during each of them–it seems like there’s at least one issue that can easily be diagnosed, solved and treated. In an ideal world, he would have been shown the door after the 1994-95 lockout shortened the season to 48 games. In any other job in the world, someone at the helm who operated so inefficiently with a multi-billion dollar business would be deemed unfit for duty. (It seems like only in the world of television does something like this endure for a long time: Michael Scott’s inefficiency and constant flubbing of things on The Office.)
A lot of the backlash seems to stem from the idea that the players have no right to speak out, that they’re making more money than many fans may ever see in a lifetime, so somehow that makes their opinion invalid. On the contrary. Everyone’s opinion matters, but players see a side of the game that the fans rarely, if ever, see. They have lived experiences that we do not. So when they speak out about something they have expertise in, something that is their life, it’s best if we at least give them a listen instead of an immediate dismissal.
While Versteeg is criticized for what he said, the fact that his former boss, Toronto GM Brian Burke, is coming to the next negotiation meetings is met with happiness. TSN’s Darren Dreger wondered if “Maybe a dose of pugnacity or truculence will spark progress?”
It could, but apparently only if it comes from the right mouths.

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