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May 18, 2006

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.

(WASHINGTON, 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.

The 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 Finals.

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 contract).

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 Carolina (86).

   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 (102).

   2000-01: Philadelphia (100) would have been the No. 3 seed over Washington (96).

   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 Bay (93).

   2003-04: Toronto (103) would have been the No. 3 seed over the Flyers (101).

   2005-06: Nashville (106) would have been the No. 3 seed ahead of Calgary.

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 home-ice.

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.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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