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There have been widely hailed Bettman successes, like the NHL's Olympic participation, and others, like a diversity program, that have largely gone unnoticed. In between there have been some cringe-inducing moments, notably the 2008 radio interview in which Bettman confused Ace Bailey with Ace Bailey. (Irvine [Ace] Bailey, a Maple Leafs winger, retired in 1933 because of a fractured skull after an Eddie Shore check, an incident that led to the creation of the All-Star Game—as a benefit—the following year. Garnet [Ace] Bailey, a 1970s forward and later the Kings scouting director, died on United Airlines Flight 175 on 9/11.) This was a self-made gotcha moment. In the context of the All-Star Game, Bettman volunteered that the elder Bailey, who died of natural causes in 1992, perished when his plane crashed into the World Trade Center. The commissioner was trumped by an Ace.
Bettman might have a paint-by-numbers feel for the game on the ice, but after two decades, and with the panoramic view of the sport his position affords him, he certainly qualifies as a hockey guy. In the broadest sense, he is the ultimate hockey guy. "Some people still see him as a basketball guy," says Sportsnet commentator John Shannon, the NHL's executive VP of programming and production from 2006 to '09. "Are you kidding me?"
Hockey guy or hockey hostage taker? Actually the commissioner is both—at least in Canada, a country that is simultaneously the rock of Bettman's game and the pebble in his shoe.
Bettman has saved at least a couple of scuffling Canadian franchises. He also has swung the truncheon, relocating two others to American cities. All commissioners are afflicted with intransigent problems—"Steroids, Bud. Concussions, Roger," Stern says—and most of the arrows aimed at Bettman seem to come from one place. Bettman calls this assertion "a media creation," but former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who worked for Bettman from 1993 to '98 as the executive VP of hockey operations, says, "His image in Canada is so unfair."
Canada's suspicion of the commissioner formed early in his tenure when the Quebec Nordiques left for Denver in 1995 and the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix the following year. It was reinforced more than a decade later when the NHL blocked Jim Balsillie, the former CEO of Canadian telecommunications giant Research in Motion (since renamed BlackBerry), from buying a U.S.-based team and moving it to southern Ontario. Bettman's unwillingness to be railroaded by Balsillie, who started a website to promote a seventh team in Canada, clashed with the country's proprietary view of hockey. Bettman hates Canada. Q.E.D.
To embrace this theory you must ignore at least two things: 1) Bettman gave the country its coveted seventh team when he returned the NHL to Winnipeg, moving the Thrashers from Atlanta in 2011 ("Right a wrong," the commissioner called it); and 2) more significantly, he developed the Canadian Assistance Plan, spanning from 1995 to 2004, which transferred money to the Oilers, Flames, Senators and, briefly, the Canucks to offset the debilitating effects of the Canadian dollar, which at the time traded as low as $0.62.
"That was an exercise in big-picture thinking," says Cal Nichols, board chairman of the group that owned the Oilers from 1998 to 2007. "Gary could have allowed natural attrition—the U.S. economy and the dollar were significantly stronger than ours—but he knew Canada was hockey country. There was a lot of pushback [from U.S. teams], but Gary had pretty good vision."
"The game is a bigger deal in Canada than, I think, football and baseball combined are in the United States," Bettman says. "The game's presence is palpable on a moment-by-moment basis."
On the macroeconomic scale, rewards for his Canadian support have been significant. The country's dollar has roared back to near par with its U.S. cousin, helping drive league-wide revenues. And since Lockout II, every Canadian team besides Edmonton and Ottawa, which Bettman backed after the Senators declared bankruptcy in 2003, has sold out every game. But the backslapping for Bettman, beyond tumultuous applause in Edmonton during the '06 Stanley Cup finals and a salute in Winnipeg when he returned the franchise, has been minimal. While he says fans who approach him in arenas are rarely anything but engaging, jeering the commissioner during the presentation of the Cup has become almost as much a ritual as roars during "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Chicago. At least he has a sense of humor. Once in the concourse between periods at Madison Square Garden, a fan yelled, "Bettman, you're an idiot!" The commissioner turned to his wife and said, "Shelli, what have you done to upset that man?"
That is the question. What has Bettman done to alienate fans? Is it something as concrete as lockouts or is it something as intangible as his mien or manner? Bettman does not present as a prototypical pound-a-coupla-Molsons-with-the-guys guy, especially when juxtaposed with other Ivy League--educated attorneys such as Burke, a graduate of Harvard Law who was once a minor league winger, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who was a running back at Dartmouth. "Bill engages you in conversations that seem real," says Panthers enforcer George Parros, an NHLPA negotiating committee member. "Gary talks like a lawyer, to get a point across. It doesn't seem genuine."