I don't watch the NHL. But now with no NHL to watch, The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever is a timely examination of hockey and the man at the centre of the lockout, Gary Bettman. The Instigator is a fascinating window into the dirty side of a sport that true fans don’t like to discuss – money – and the man in charge of the league’s finances. It explores Bettman’s thinking, explains why there’s a lockout, and candidly points to how it will probably end. Where Ken Dryden's The Game explains hockey’s soul, Maclean’s writer Jonathon Gatehouse's The Instigator examines its head.
Having picked up The Instigator out of a kind of morbid curiosity on the eve of the lockout, I read it in just two sittings. All I knew about Bettman was that he is disliked north of the border and was viciously parodied in Bon Cop, Bad Cop (video below). The Instigator provides an insight into his mind at a time when fans probably want to know what he is thinking. It describes the NHL in the Age of Bettman and is balanced enough to infuriate fans who looked forward to a hatchet job on him. Gatehouse paints Bettman as essentially a numbers guy, which, I think, drives much of the animosity towards him. He’s not inherently evil – fans just don’t see him as comprehending the mythic status and tradition that hockey has in this country. With an academic background in Industrial Labour Relations, Bettman views hockey as a business and the NHLPA as the target for some good old-fashioned union busting. He comes across as a rational businessman who learns from his mistakes (he's unlikely to ever move another team away from Canada), but who just doesn't see the sense in ignoring the American market, especially when American hockey fans are among the biggest spenders in sport. Yes, emotion is a big part of sport (I look forward to the book that takes down FIFA’s Sepp Blatter), but someone has to watch the numbers that keep the arenas open in the long run. And that someone is inevitably going to annoy a lot of fans.
This is all a long way of saying that you don't have to be a hockey fan to enjoy The Instigator. Like Moneyball does for baseball, The Instigator explains the nuts and bolts of the business of hockey and describes how its financial needs repeatedly butt up against Canadian cultural expectations. Gatehouse had access to all the key figures and, from their competing stories, has written what will probably become a classic of sports reportage. It explains the ongoing disputes within the NHL and why the man at the centre of it all will remain a figure of frustration to many Canadian fans. But, then they should re-consider the title, since The Instigator picks his fights for a reason. Today, the NHL is on firm financial ground, in large part because of Gary Bettman, and history may eventually judge him as the man who saved hockey.