He had to burn the village in order to save it. Gary Bettman is my Sportsman of the Year. OK, so it doesn't make a pretty cover picture. So Bettman, a stiff, intransigent suit interested primarily in the bottom line, isn't a poster child for all that's wonderful in sports. So he oversaw a league that, for the first time in North American pro sports history, closed its doors for an entire season, causing financial pain to thousands of vendors and ticket sellers and stadium personnel, not to mention emotional trauma for hockey fans and all of Canada. So he comes across as emotionally cold and even a little smarmy.
He won. He is the cham-pion, he is the cham-pion!
What other individual had a greater impact on his or her sport? Who else can say that, for better or worse, they fundamentally changed their game? What executive has ever entered into a labor negotiation and so utterly, completely come away with everything he wanted? No one. Ever. Bettman didn't just knock out the NHL Players' Association's leadership. He killed it in the ring.
Why should we care? Why should we bequeath an award to a man who so unapologetically places business ahead of sport, and is willing to smother his sport for an entire year? Because the new NHL, the post-lockout league of 2005-06, is better as a result.
The seats, priced to the sky after 20-some years of runaway salary escalation, are cheaper. Make that: more affordable. Nothing about the NHL is cheap. More importantly, the game, which had devolved into something akin to rugby on ice after years of inaction, has dramatically improved. Spurred into action by the American public's collective yawn at the absence of the NHL last year, and years of miniscule TV ratings, Bettman created a competition committee that pushed through a series of changes designed to put offense and open ice back into the game.
Recommendations that had been touted by members of the media for years --allowing the two-line pass, cutting back on the size of goalie equipment, sudden death shootouts -- were suddenly, and painlessly, instituted. The game suddenly looked like entertainment again.
So here's to the fire that leads to reforestation. Here's to the giant step backward that leads to two steps ahead. Here's to continuing to build on what's been started, to a competition committee that isn't afraid to tinker with NHL rules so that skill players are allowed to strut their stuff. It was ugly, but it was worth it. Gary Bettman, you're no sportsman, but you're my Sportsman of the Year.