Hockey

SAVIOUR OF OUR GAME

Who would have thought Gary Bettman would rescue Canadian hockey?

CHARLIE GILLIS July 25 2005
Hockey

SAVIOUR OF OUR GAME

Who would have thought Gary Bettman would rescue Canadian hockey?

CHARLIE GILLIS July 25 2005

SAVIOUR OF OUR GAME

Hockey

Who would have thought Gary Bettman would rescue Canadian hockey?

CHARLIE GILLIS

WALK INTO ANY of Canada’s six NHL arenas and you’ll soon see them: portraits, rafter banners and statues memorializing the lions of hockey’s past. For years in Vancouver, fans on their way to their seats at the old Pacific Coliseum passed beneath a looming, sepia-tinged photograph of Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, the rushing defenceman who in 1915 helped bring the city its only Stanley Cup. At the Saddledome in Calgary, it’s colour shots of the redoubtable Lanny McDonald, moustache in full splendour, holding his 500-goal puck. In Edmonton, fans and scalpers gather beneath the statue of Wayne Gretzky hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Now picture, if you will, some likeness of Gary Bettman in any of these places. A smaller effigy, perhaps, to reflect both the NHL commissioner’s physical stature and the fact that, so far as anyone knows, he’s never laced up a pair of skates. But there nonetheless, alongside the game’s great heroes, its builders and its keepers. Gary Bettman, Saviour of Small Market Canadian Franchises. Who’d have thunk?

Certainly not Canadian fans. Since he became NHL commission back in 1992, Bettman has been a designated whipping boy for this country’s hockey enthusiasts, a Yankee carpetbagger who tried to steal the game, tart it up with laser shows and sell it to the U.S. South. The departures of franchises from Winnipeg and Quebec City reinforced this perception and, worse, gave the impression Bettman was using his considerable slickness to avoid accountability. One Toronto columnist referred to him in print as “Gary the Weasel.” Another labelled

him a “New York lawyer”— apparently deeming it an even worse epithet.

Harsh stuff, but it seemed at the time like fair comment. With visions of the NHL taking its place alongside the sportsentertainment juggernauts of Major League Baseball and the NBA, Bettman was busy trying to pry his way into the lucrative U.S. television market, which meant peddling franchises in places like Florida and Phoenix. Ensuring that fans in St. Boniface, Man., got to keep their beloved Jets didn’t factor into that equation, and we know now what the experiment wrought: an inferior game subsisting in cities where sports fans don’t much care; the loss of critical U.S. TV deals that justified the expansion; a financial reckoning embodied by the 301-day lockout, and the owners’ scorched-earth stand in pursuit of a salary cap.

Now, as the smoke from the lockout dissipates and details of the tentative deal emerge, it’s becoming clear that—irony of ironies—the commissioner has obtained the precise conditions needed to keep franchises like Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver in place. The $39-million salary cap, tied to revenues and undiluted by a luxury tax system, means that big-market franchises can no longer use their deep pockets to monopolize veteran talent. It conversely means that losing teams can no longer lure away star players with ludicrous offers (see: Alexei Yashin, New York Islanders), and this too should weigh in favour of cities

that actually care about hockey. Given the choice between playing for a packed house in Ottawa and 9,000 fans in Long Island, where would you rather be?

The truth is, somewhere along the line Bettman saw a light—one that led him to hockey’s heartland. “The Oilers wouldn’t still be in Edmonton if it weren’t for me,” he once said, and in retrospect it’s possible to believe him. He had, in fact, taken action in the mid-’90s to salvage Canadian teams by brokering a revenue-sharing incentive program to reward small-market franchises that sold lots of seasons tickets. Later, he pulled strings behind the scenes to help keep Edmonton in the hands of local buyers. Sure, the lockout was about more than saving Canadian franchises, says Pat Laforge, the Oilers’ president. But it may well prove a watershed for a team that has watched the likes of Paul Coffey, Curtis Joseph and Doug Weight fly the coop to higher bidders. “He certainly deserves triple As for his intestinal fortitude,” says Laforge. “He saw this out and he made it happen.”

Some fans will differ, of course. During the darkest hours of the lockout last January, an 84-year-old Ottawa man used his newspaper obituary to hammer Bettman, declaring both him and Bob Goodenow, leader of the players’ union, “skunks” for denying him the pleasure of NHL hockey in his dying year. But Bettman never asked to be liked, and while the owners who employ him freely grant portraits or plaques to those who do thenbidding, history may treat the scrappy New York lawyer best of all. It can’t be any tougher on him than cranky Canadian fans. IÏÏÏ