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Bettman & Why the NHL is so Tough to Bet

Listening to the 1-on-1 panel with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the Sloan Sports Analytics  Conference in Boston on Friday, it was easy to get the impression this guy suffers fools worse than most. 

“This is incredibly annoying,” he said, clearly agitated by an issue with feedback to his mic, which wasn’t audible to the audience. 

“I don’t find it too bad – but then again I’m used to listening to Mike Milbury,” retorted Liam McHugh, the panel’s host and Host of NHL on NBC. McHugh’s comment gave way to a few chuckles for what was becoming a very awkward situation in the interview.  

McHugh’s job wasn’t easy today but any hockey fan knows you should go into a conversation with Bettman with your chinstrap done up. 

There were several moments during the hour-long sit down with the commissioner where he appeared to be irritated or losing patience. The audio issues weren’t a great start and I have to admit I thought there’d be a bigger crowd. (I’d say there were only enough people to fill up the area inside the blue line with everyone seated comfortably.) 

At one point McHugh asked Bettman what the ‘quiet room’ was like – the place where players go when trainers need to evaluate a potential concussion. 

“They go to a room and close the door. So it’s quiet. It’s really not that complicated!” he answered. 

Another question: How do you respond to criticism of the 3-on-3 overtime system? 

“Shut up. Don’t complain,” said the commissioner, though he was joking this time. 

I don’t mean for this to sound like a Bettman bitch fest. I’m actually a fan of his and am a defender when the Bettman haters roll out. He’s made the NHL the most progressive league when it comes to making changes in attempts to make the game better and he was absolutely right when he said the NHL has “created a system where all teams can afford to compete.” 

That’s not easy and it took balls to do it that ultimately led to a lockout.  

Still, it’s difficult not to compare this panel to the two with commissioners I’ve seen at this conference – the NBA’s Adam Silver and MLB’s Robert Manfred. Maybe the questions weren’t as engaging in past commissioner 1-on-1’s, it’s tough to say. I would have loved to hear him talk more about the NHL website’s new design or the impact of daily fantasy on NHL analytics and the league’s relationship with DraftKings.  

What was interesting to me though was something that sheds light on why hockey can be so difficult to consistently win at for sports bettors. 

“Our game in particular has ebbs and flows of emotion,” Bettman said. “A good GM has to have a good feel for the game, his locker room… the game is not played on paper.”  

It’s very true. The emotion and physical demands of an NHL schedule aren’t paralleled by any other league and then you throw the salary system on top of it all. It amounts to what Bettman says is more parity than any other league and he can make a pretty strong argument. 

Last year seven teams made the playoffs who didn’t qualify the season before and this year there’d be six teams in that category if the season ended today. 

So betting hockey is about a lot more than analytics at times. You have to have a bit of an understanding of what teams are going through and watching the schedule is a huge factor in keeping your bankroll tidy. 

Around this time of year, you also have to keep a close eye on the lineups. Teams that aren’t in the playoff hunt may be looking down the road and McHugh addressed the issue of tanking.   

“I don’t think the notion is there. I think some people speculate about it. I think it’s commentary,” said Bettman. “If you talk to our players, if you talk to our coaches… they don’t tank…. Rebuilding is a fact of life in sports.” 

Indeed it is.  So keep your head up this time of year before making any puck wagers. 

Random hockey numbers from Bettman panel: 

-Over 1 million people have attended 18 outdoor games. 
-23 teams have participated in outdoor games 
-1,234 game season
-Half of the NHL’s players come from Canada
-Tonight will be the 20th and final game of the Dennis Wideman suspension

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