Leave the Playoffs Alone, Gary
Gary Bettman has been quick to follow David Stern's game-plan
for years. TFP's Greg Wyshynski says he won't institute the
NBA's new postseason format in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
DC) -- In 1992, David Stern was responsible for Gary
Bettman's hiring as NHL Commissioner.
While I'm sure he penned a stellar letter of
recommendation to the Board of Governors ("Gary always
showed up for work on time, was a dedicated team player,
and initiated a spending cap on office happy hours..."),
it was the meteoric rise of the NBA in the 1980s under
Stern that turned the Association's Senior Vice
President Bettman who, with Russ Granik, were his top
lieutenants into the prime candidate to initiate the
same sort of popular revolution for the NHL.
difference between Stern and Bettman is the difference
between any visionary and his henchman.
Bill Clinton had the charisma and populist agenda; Al Gore had
the robotic, long-winded concentration on policy. Jimmy
Johnson had the magnetism and the ability to maneuver around
the psychological pitfalls in the Dallas Cowboys' locker room;
Norv Turner wasn't so good with the personalities, but sure
did know how to draw up a passing play. Letterman tells the
jokes; Paul Schaffer adds music to the punchline. That's the
way it works.
The expectations that Bettman would be able to turn the NHL
into a Sternian marketing juggernaut were, in painful
hindsight, a bit of a reach.
Stern was the one that created a league-wide marketing concept
that every NBA team and every player brought into. He was the
one who fostered the league's endless list of corporate
sponsors and partners. It wasn't Stern that made Michael
Jordan or Magic Johnson stars, but it was Stern who invented a
publicity machine that churned out enough formidable opponents
to duel with them on Sunday afternoons.
Bettman, in contrast, was a graduate of New York University
School of Law and had a mastery of the league's complicated
salary cap. He was a backroom guy; the guy you want working
out the details while someone else closes the deal. But that's
not the guy the NHL wanted to hire. They wanted Mini-Stern: a
Commissioner who would be able to grow the league into a
national entity rather than a regional one, and an executive
who could enact a marketing plan that could create household
names beyond Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
Bettman decided to answer their challenge. And bad things
happen when Gary Bettman tries to impersonate David Stern.
Over-expansion and ill-advised relocation happen: Vancouver
and New Orleans for Stern, Nashville and Phoenix for Bettman.
Labor stoppages happen: one that crippled the NHL, and one
that has allegedly saved it from itself.
Perhaps the greatest marketing folly of Bettman's tenure
besides the idiotic, pacifist decision to run away from
promoting the game's violent, physical nature when football
and Vince McMahon were making billions from it was the NHL's
decision to ape the NBA's star-centric marketing. It crashed
and burned for three very simple reasons:
1. The NBA's stars are in the game for practically the entire
game; NHL stars come on and off the ice, and aren't as easily
identifiable to the viewers watching on television.
2. The NBA, during its boom time, was marketing American-born
athletes who were stars in the NCAA and became megastars in
the pros; the NHL spent most of the 90s attempted to sell guys
named Pavel, Sergei and Ziggy to xenophobic ESPN viewers.
3. The NHL's decision to market its stars came at a moment in
league history when goal-scoring was quiescent and 2-1 games
ruled the postseason. How do you market offense when there
isn't any? Bettman tried, and failed.
I rehash this history now because we're nearly at another
moment in Bettman's legacy where he has the opportunity to
play Baby Stern.
The NBA Commissioner this week proposed a new playoff format
in which the top four seeds in each conference would be
slotted by record meaning the three division winners and the
team with the next-best record would be re-seeded.
Records would also dictate home-court advantage. This is
fallout from this NBA postseason, in which the Dallas
Mavericks were seeded fourth behind the West's division
champions despite having the second-best record in the
conference. Had they been seeded second, they would have drawn
the conference-leading San Antonio Spurs no earlier than the
It isn't a bold prediction to say that the NHL's 12-year-old
playoff format could be tweaked (a return to the 2-3-2 scheme,
favored by some owners) or revolutionized (Brendan Shanahan's
10-team format with three-game "play-in" series, the only
thing that could reward futility more than Alexei Yashin's
If Stern pushes through his proposal and Bettman adopts his
friend's vision for the NHL postseason, the impact would fall
somewhere in the middle.
Since 1998-99, when the six-division format was created,
nearly every season has produced a case in which a
second-place team would have jumped over a division champion.
Under the Stern plan:
1998-99: Toronto (97 points) would have been the No. 3 seed over
1999-00: New Jersey (103) would have been the No. 2 seed over
Washington (102) and Toronto (100). Detroit would have been
the No. 2 seed in the West over Colorado (96) and Dallas
2000-01: Philadelphia (100) would have been the No. 3 seed over
2001-02: Toronto (100) would have been the No. 2 seed over the
Flyers (97) and Carolina (91).
2002-03: The Flyers would have been the No. 3 seed ahead of Tampa
2003-04: Toronto (103) would have been the No. 3 seed over the
2005-06: Nashville (106) would have been the No. 3 seed ahead of
That last example with the Predators is a case study in
everything that's wrong about David Stern's plan.
Nashville didn't deserve a No. 3 seed because it played in
what amounted to a junior varsity division this season a
division whose bottom three teams had a combined record of
82-164. Ask Detroit what a sterling record against the compost
of the conference gets you in the playoffs.
More than that, Nashville, as the No. 3 seed in the West,
would have faced Anaheim instead of San Jose. Would it, in
hindsight, have mattered? Not at all it'd still be tee-time
for the Kariya and the boys after the first round.
And that's the point: play the damn games!
Seeding only matters to the one team (looking back on it,
Toronto) that gets screwed every year because it doesn't have
the benefit of playing in an easier division to win.
It didn't matter to the Devils in 2000 when they avoided an
upset-minded Penguins team in the 2-7 game and went on to win
the Cup. And I'm sure the Leafs didn't mind their lot in life
when they rolled to the conference finals in 1999 with
I shudder to think that the NHL is going to tinker with the
one thing even the league's harshest critics agree works: the
Stanley Cup playoffs.
But luckily, the NHL doesn't have to appease a cranky Mark
Cuban with a revamped playoff format.
The NHL doesn't need to follow the NBA's lead. Because
whenever it does, fans get a harsh reminder that David Stern
is David Stern, and Gary Bettman isn't.
Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is
a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington
Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.
His book, "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports
is now on sale.