Bettman: villain to hero

If there was one person all Canadians could agree to blame for the Winnipeg Jets moving to Phoenix...

If there was one person all Canadians could agree to blame for the Winnipeg Jets moving to Phoenix and the Quebec Nordiques relocating to Denver, it was Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner who oversaw the dreaded exodus. (QMI Agency)

TED WYMAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:53 PM ET

For years he has been thought of as a villain whose hate for Canada and love for the Southern U.S. was to blame for the demise of NHL hockey in places like Winnipeg and Quebec City.

If there was one person all Canadians could agree to blame for the Winnipeg Jets moving to Phoenix and the Quebec Nordiques relocating to Denver, it was Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner who oversaw the dreaded exodus.

Yet there Bettman was Tuesday morning, sitting alongside True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman, proclaiming words many Manitobans never thought he'd utter: The NHL is coming back to Winnipeg.

Yes, the very man who represented the Americanization of our game was at the podium, extolling the virtues of Winnipeg, its fan base, its arena and its ownership group.

A surreal moment, to be sure.

"It's nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years," Bettman opened, garnering applause from some of the media in attendance.

Outside on the streets and at the Forks, where fans gathered to celebrate and watch the press conference on a big screen, the approval rating for the one-time Public Enemy No. 1 was not so high.

"I always thought he hated us," said fan William Briggs after fans at the Forks booed every time Bettman came on the screen. "I honestly couldn't believe when I heard him say those things about Winnipeg. I'm still not sure I trust him."

Other fans are ready to forgive and forget.

"I know a lot of people think of him as a villain, but I know back in 1996 the NHL didn't want to leave here," fan Keith Dowler, dressed in his Winnipeg Jets jersey, said after leaving the Forks. "Nobody wanted to own the team here at the time and spend all that money on an uncertain future.

"I don't like when people boo him. He's not the villain here. He's a hero now."

While the NHL board of governors has still not officially approved the move of the Thrashers to Winnipeg, the league's commissioner obviously doesn't see it as an issue.

"The opportunity to come back here, to bring a franchise back to Canada, which we know is the heart and soul of our game, is vitally important to us and it's something we were proud to do when the circumstances presented themselves," he said.

"This venue, the MTS Centre, will be a fine, fine home for an NHL club and there is the strength of the prospective ownership group."

Bettman continually pointed out that the NHL had to leave Winnipeg in 1996 because no one wanted to own the team or build an arena. He also touched on all the factors that have changed since that time, which makes Winnipeg viable once again.

"To be able to come back to a place that we know loves NHL hockey, in a city that has changed, with a collective bargaining agreement that has levelled the playing surface, with this building, with this ownership group that didn't exist in 1996, this is an extraordinary thing."

Bill Daly, Bettman's right-hand man at the NHL office who was also in attendance Tuesday, said the notion his boss has something against Canada is ridiculous.

"This perception that there may be some anti-Canadian bias really couldn't be further from the truth," Daly said. "At a time when NHL hockey in Canada was struggling in the late '90s and early 2000s, it was Gary who really stepped up to the plate and did what we could as a league to try to maintain the NHL's importance and popularity in Canada.

"It was not only the Jets and Nordiques, but there was concern (for) other Canadian franchises. We knew it was due to a variety of factors and all those factors have changed so I think Gary is very pleased to be able to right a wrong and bring a team back to Winnipeg."

Bettman certainly echoed those comments and repeated something he has been saying for several years, to somewhat skeptical ears north of the border.

"We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn't left since 1996," Bettman said.

"It was clear that times have changed for Winnipeg as an NHL market and this a wonderful time to add a club to Canada. Hockey in Canada has never been stronger and the NHL has a different economic structure which allows the so-called small-market teams to compete."

Winnipeg hockey fans hope that statement proves to be true as well.

If it does, Bettman's transformation from villain to hero won't revert anytime soon.


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