Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: The Instigator (2012)

By Jonathon Gatehouse

Now that the National Hockey League lockout is over, raise your hand if you want to learn much, much more about Commissioner Gary Bettman.

There's one hand, two ... no, wait, that guy was just stretching.

I would suspect that the author of "The Instigator," a book about Bettman and how he's changed the business of hockey, probably doesn't expect many people to run out and buy this book in this particular week. Jonathon Gatehouse, a writer for the Canadian magazine Maclean's, no doubt became a little tired of seeing Bettman and Donald Fehr of the Players Association on television all the time for the past several months.

Still, that's not to say that Bettman isn't an interesting personality. He certainly has had a major effect on hockey, and that's what this book studies in a thorough, relatively interesting way.

Bettman came to the National Hockey League about 20 years ago. The league had some aspirations of joining the big boys in baseball, football and basketball, but pretty clearly didn't know how to do it. After some clearly ineffective individuals tried their hand at it, the NHL went after Bettman from the NBA office.

Bettman was at first glance an unlikely choice. He grew up in the New York City area, went to Cornell, and worked his way to the NBA office. Eventually he became a top aide to the NBA's David Stern, and was a natural target for the NHL.

As Gatehouse reviews here, Bettman has brought the NHL into the modern age in a lot of areas. Revenues have gone up drastically, the games are on national television in the United States on channels that people can actually watch, and teams have been placed in large markets throughout the country - including the Sun Belt. Bettman is smart and has taken charge, and the league has benefitted.

It's not an unblemished record. There have been four work stoppages on Bettman's watch, and some of the Sun Belt teams are still bleeding money. Bettman will never be forgiven for not having Canadian blood somewhere in his family tree by some Canadians. He's also never been the smiling face of hockey. Bettman is quoted in the book that he spends about 75 percent of his time on the problem franchises, and that would make anyone dour.

This is not a classic biography of Bettman. Rather, Gatehouse covers his life story in a chapter and then takes a look at some of the issues he's faced over the two decades. For example, franchise relocation, marketing and sponsorship, and television negotiations are covered here. Obviously, the labor disputes come up as well. There's some good attention to detail here, and plenty of facts that aren't well known come to light. The little things are good too -- such as the fact that Bettman has a picture of his grandchildren on his smartphone.

The ultimate question surrounding Bettman's time on the job is whether hockey is better off because he's been there. The answer probably is yes. Even so, the idea that hockey will take a firm foothold throughout the warm climates of the South in the U.S. still seems like a far-off dream at times. The game's stars still aren't instantly recognized by American sports fans. And we'll have to see if this latest labor agreement proves to be something of a cure for many of hockey's problems; the NHL's track record isn't too good in that department. Good negotiators get deals done, and the record there is spotty.

There's plenty to like here. Gatehouse covers plenty of ground, has good sources and writes well and clearly. The subject never rarely turns dry, at least for those even slightly interested in the subject. "The Instigator" may not be at the top of your reading list now, but it's not a bad idea to pick up later when the idea of discussing hockey related revenues isn't a stomach-turner like it might be now.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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