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Under Review: Jonathon Gatehouse's The Instigator

With nothing else to do during the lockout, I review Jonathon Gatehouse's new look into recent NHL history and its commissioner, The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever.

Bruce Bennett - Getty Images

I went into this book, eh, not really knowing what to expect. I knew Jonathon Gatehouse had gotten fantastic access to Gary Bettman and the league, and I knew the book was being well received. That was it. Here's what I found.

As a Reader

I don't know how, but Gatehouse found a way to make a biography of a lawyer absolutely compelling. This book is written very, very well, and is accessible, despite the small mountain of information in it. On a macro level, some of the chaptering is overly long; the one on the lockouts in particular could have obviously been broken between the two lockouts but wasn't, which results in a chapter that sucks you in for fully an hour and resulted in my losing some sleep. How dare you, sir. How dare you write something so absorbing I can't quit reading it without a chapter break, and then make the chapters long. (Really, though, splitting the lockouts would have allowed the book to progress in chronological order, instead of hopping from 2005 back to the sale of the Winnipeg Jets.)

But I enjoyed the hell out of this book. It was absolute quality. Packed with facts, details, and anecdotes from Bill Daly, Bruce McNall, and Cliff Fletcher, just to name a select few, and to say nothing of the access to Bettman. The first chapter is basically the story of Gary Bettman, and how he became the leader of the NHL, with commentary from the man himself. (Wait til you read what his momento of Wayne Gretzky's record breaking goal is.)

As a Hockey Fan

Wow. The amount of information in here is incredible. I don't mean old hockey guys telling stories, either. As a guy from a younger generation, I learned a ton about the labor disputes in the mid-90s, as well as the culture of the NHL before Bettman's entrance on the scene, that I just wasn't aware of before. The numbers involved in disputes between beer sponsors or Canadian television deals are laid bare, in painstaking detail. There's even a little nugget about the Nordiques becoming our Avs, lumped into the larger narrative of the Winnipeg Jets saga. For anyone with an eye to where this lockout is going to go, you absolutely must understand the leader of the ownership's side, and that man is brought to you here in stunning detail.

An argument that keeps showing up in lockout talk is that we really shouldn't be directing anger at Gary Bettman, that it's the owners who should actually be drawing our ire and he is simply their puppet, or at least doing their bidding. The Instigator would suggest this isn't the case. Gary Bettman does no man's bidding but his own. He was hired to do exactly what the CBA is meant to do this season: save the owners from themselves. Bettman came into the league with some knowledge of the sport but certainly no long-standing passion for it, but did have an eye for sports business. He quickly re-vamped the boardroom into a professional entity and started marketing the game in new ways to reach toward his number one objective: a big TV deal. There was even worry that he would seek to abolish fighting to appeal to an audience that didn't exist yet, and he himself expressed no opinion. (The fact that fighting remains with us might have something to do with the fact that Bettman hired to be his "hockey guy" none other than Mr. Truculence himself, Brian Burke.)

There's two things that we absolutely must understand about Gary Bettman that Gatehouse makes clear. One thing: this is a seriously smart guy. He's smart through knowledge, through sheer intelligence, and through cleverness. The other thing: That doesn't mean he's as smart as he thinks. The player-sided deal from the 90s was brokered because Goodenow made Bettman feel like the smartest guy in the room. (Bettman turns that idea around now, saying the best way to get the owners to agree to something is to make them think they thought of it.) Combine that with the idea that Bettman is no man's crony, and we see how this league has seen so many work stoppages under his reign:

1. Gary Bettman inherited a league with deep flaws on several levels.
2. Gary Bettman is certain he knows what's best.
3. Gary Bettman is willing to lead his clique of owners with an iron fist, and has earned their trust by doing it to their benefit.

That's what makes him such a fearsome negotiating partner, and that's why a proposal that is met with such immediate enthusiasm is worth a second, skeptical look when it comes unsolicited, a day after a top-secret NHL public relations focus group was leaked. Is this what he was after all along? Is it duplicitous? Where does it pin the PA? What does the NHL get out of their response? That's how every move Bettman makes has to be framed in this negotiation.

Overall, this is a guy who thinks ahead of you all the way to the endgame (see the run-up to the lost season), keeps in close contact with all of his owners as well as several prospective ones on a constant basis, has his fingers dipped into everything the League does (through delegates that he feels are the best men for the job), and likes to make his deals privately (see Atlanta->Winnipeg) rather than publicly (see Phoenix->Glendale). He can be heavy-handed in owner discipline (see the blacklisting of Ballsillie, fines for speaking out of turn) to keep the ranks together. And he's nobody's puppet.


Don't miss this one, guys; just set aside enough time to read chunks uninterrupted. It's easy to read and carries you with it. (I would love to add some quotes but, y'know, copyright and stuff.) The insight into Gary Bettman is excellent. And it's more than just a book about him--this is a recent history of the NHL, and you will learn something.