SUN Hockey Pool

Bettman star rises in NHL turnaround

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

Leo Cahill summed up the rosy state-of-hockey address succinctly as we sat at the Sports Media Canada awards luncheon Wednesday: "Pretty smooth."

Cahill knows smooth. The former general manager and coach of the Toronto Argonauts also knows smart. He knows what it is to be on the inside and also on the outside of public opinion, to be the good guy and the bad guy.

And after dealing with club owners, league commissioners and all other precincts of the sports community, one of the most dynamic people to grace the Canadian sports scene recognizes a star ascending.

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman's had been falling faster than George W. Bush's popularity. It was Bettman who locked out the players. It was he, a non-hockey guy recruited from the National Basketball Association, who had taken the NHL to the precipice of an abyss too frightening to contemplate.

He was seen as the neatly groomed little fellow whose carefully crafted lawyerly words seemed at odds with the gravity of the longest and most passionate labour stoppage in professional sports history. The league appeared intransigent, the players the aggrieved parties.

"He's gonna kill the game" was a familiar comment from fans.

Flash forward 15 months and the role reversals of the disputants has been breath-taking. Bettman -- dare we say it -- is now wearing the white hat.

The black hat sits on the shelf. Nobody is around to don it since Players' Association chief Bob Goodenow was ousted by his membership.

Bettman, the guy who seemingly put the game on a death-watch, is looking almost heroic. A workable salary model and exciting rules changes have brought the game storming back with no discernable villain anymore.

The commish obviously assessed his foes carefully. If Goodenow was prepared to carry the quest for a new collective bargaining agreement through a second abandoned season, his membership was not and a collective bargaining agreement was soon in place.

Somewhere deep inside Bettman during a media scrum prior to his address there must have been an urge to mount a platform of moral rectitude, to claim vindication after the nasty little war. If there was, he resisted it admirably.

Bettman's glance in the rear-view mirror essentially went back only the two weeks the league has been in action. He trumpeted the successes, the numbers of fans compared to the drastic fall-off of baseball following its labour strife a decade ago, the new excitement generated by all the rules changes, the look ahead.

It is in this area the new NHL is having its finest moment. The league had to do something fast to restore the ardour of frustrated fans.

You might wonder why rules-tweaking designed to increase speed and scoring wasn't done years ago, when a star such as Mario Lemieux colourfully called it a garage league. The answer is because it didn't feel it had to.

The NHL could no longer take its fans for granted. The league had to listen to its stars and its fans, and did.

Bettman credited the work of Detroit Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan, of NHL executive vice-president Colin Campbell and all the others involved in a mass makeover of rules that had been resisted at every turn in the past.

But Bettman had to convince the owners and general managers of the wisdom behind the rationale. And the owners had to listen. For once, they didn't shoot themselves in the foot.

I asked Bettman if the new salary-capped financial model would present a chance for franchises in previous NHL cities. Nothing on the horizon, he replied.

Would thriving Winnipeg and Quebec City franchises make the new NHL perfect, or what? With the new rules opening up a pool of smaller players to offset a watering-down of talent, that would indeed be smooth.


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