Although he has to publicly remain neutral, you have to believe that National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman, and probably everyone else in the league office, will be secretly cheering for the Rangers in their Eastern Conference Finals best-of-seven matchup against the New Jersey Devils, underway since Monday night. But that has nothing to do with the fact that Bettman grew up in Forest Hills or that the NHL office is located in Manhattan about a mile from Madison Square Garden.
A Rangers appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals would guarantee a huge audience for the NHL’s broadcast partner, NBC. It wasn’t that long ago when the league was having trouble finding any network willing to broadcast its games. If the NHL wants to enjoy the big-dollar TV deals that the NFL, NBA and MLB do, it needs to deliver big ratings.
If the Rangers were to win the Cup, they’d certainly parade down the Canyon of Heroes — priceless publicity for a niche sport like hockey.
The Devils have not endeared themselves to NHL officials for reasons that go beyond the obvious, that Newark isn’t New York and their fan base is quite small. The Devils’ finances are so shaky there were rumors that the NHL might have to take them over after they missed a $100 million bond payment due last September. So far that hasn’t happened, but neither has the bond principal been repaid. Even the Mets would probably get a AAA rating from Moody’s if compared with the Devils’ fiscal operations.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker publicly slammed Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek last month for failing to live up to terms settled upon in 2006 when the city agreed to help get the Devils’ home, the Prudential Center, built.
Even worse, as far as Bettman is concerned, is how Devils President Lou Lamoriello does things. Lou knows how to build a very good hockey team but couldn’t care less about the business aspects of his operation. He refuses to promote star players through ad campaigns. Martin Brodeur is arguably the greatest goaltender in NHL history, but most sports fans couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup.
Over the years I’ve run into such Devils stars as Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk at Starlight Children’s Foundation events. Even though all three players are highly skilled and quite photogenic, they’re relative unknowns. When I’ve asked them if that anonymity bothers them, they’ve all basically shrugged their shoulders forlornly and said, “That’s Lou.”
Lamoriello is reputedly not fond of the media, and from what I hear couldn’t care less if the Devils’ press box was a ghost town, which it is most nights. The fact that press coverage enhances revenue apparently escapes him.
Last month I wrote about how as part of their latest collective bargaining agreement, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to significantly limit press access to the clubhouse.
I can’t be sure if my column had anything to do with it, though I have a sneaking suspicion that it did, but last week MLB and the players union agreed to modify things and open team clubhouses earlier to the media as an accommodation. Bravo to both sides for doing the right thing.
After I wrote my “MLB limits press access” article on April 12 [find it in the archives here at qchron.com], a couple of veteran Mets players spoke to me.
“We may have to modify things,” pitcher RA Dickey said .
Miguel Batista, a spot starter with the team who is also 41 years old, offered a veteran’s perspective talking to me in the Mets dugout before a game.
“I tell the young players that if you don’t tell your story to the press, someone else will,” Batista said. “If we are going to close our clubhouse to the media then we have to find the time and ways to speak to them. I have been a reporter with ESPN, so I know what it’s like to be in your shoes. And yes, there are too many athletes who hide in the trainer’s room or in the players’ cafeteria.”
Both Dickey and Batista know full well that if it weren’t for media coverage, baseball players’ compensation would be similar to that earned by professional lacrosse and soccer players in the United States. You can make an argument that lacrosse and soccer players are better athletes, but not that they’re better paid.