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NHL Return Nears, Insiders Say Bettman ‘One of the Heroes’



Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL Season, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

The NHL has salvaged the 2020-21 season. It’s not yet official, and the season doesn’t yet have an official start date, but the important issues, most notably monetary distribution, have been settled. The challenges that now face the NHL are logistics and time, which also seem to be under control.

The puck should drop on Jan. 13 or soon after. We will have hockey, Pittsburgh Penguins hockey, and 30 other teams.

There was a faction of owners, believed to be led by Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who fought Bettman from the inside. The number of owners who either didn’t want a 2021 season or were open to the idea was not insignificant. Estimates range from six on the low side to 10 on the high side.

You can read more about the competing thoughts and results in our latest “Off the Record” column. 

Believe it or not, for the second time this year, Gary Bettman became the hero for hockey fans. Perhaps not the hero you want, but Bettman blunted an insurgency at peril to his career.

Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly quelled the rebellion from within.

“If we play, you can thank Bettman and Daly,” a source on the player’s side crowed this week. “…If this season happens, fans won’t like this, but Gary could be one of the heroes that helped make it happen.”

Gary Bettman. Hero. Who would have thought that in 2019?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Even when he’s on the wrong side of the issues, he manages to protect the NHL owners. He doesn’t lose.

It’s become a tradition to rag Bettman. Perhaps a game.

When Bettman stepped to the microphone at the 2019 NHL Draft in Dallas, thousands of fans rained boos on Bettman for several minutes. The jeers have become a hockey custom, just as the boos cascade to the ice when the commissioner awards the Stanley Cup each June.

On that sweltering June day in Dallas, as the boos persisted, Bettman flashed a sense of humor. It was clearly a sign the longest active commissioner among the major professional sports has grown comfortable in his role.

“I can do this as long as you can,” he smirked as the boos intensified.

Last June, Bettman didn’t have the chance to be serenaded with Bronx cheers. Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the NHL season, and everyone was trying to figure out a way to save the playoffs. Nor was there a draft in front of thousands of fans.

The NHL figured out a way to salvage their season before anyone else. The “bubble” idea for the 2020 NHL playoffs may not have originated with the NHL (though it may have, too), but the league was the first to get it on paper. It was executed flawlessly, and I will attest to that first hand.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning finally lifted the Stanley Cup, nearly two months had passed, and not a single player tested positive. From the food trucks which circled the back patio of the players’ hotel in Downtown Toronto to fighting for children eager to see their daddy in the Edmonton bubble, the NHL could not have done a better job.

Over the years, there have been ample reasons for fans to voice displeasure, but Bettman’s exemplary performance in 2020 stands in full counterbalance the negatives.

With an invisible enemy threatening his business and the businesses of his charges, NHL owners, Bettman has used his powers for good. Again.

Did you ever think you would hear a player or player’s agent use “Bettman” and “hero” in the same sentence? Out loud?

Bettman lost the 1994-95 lockout as owners caved on their demands for a salary cap and their fight against full-fledged free agency. The players won, and the hot-shot young commissioner who recently had a desk down the hall from revered NBA Commissioner David Stern was saddled with the big L.

Bettman hasn’t lost since, including the 2012-13 lockout, which was about…well, we’re not sure what it was about. But the NHL owners got a 50/50 share of hockey-related revenues, which still stands.

Bettman has also avoided paying crippling damages over concussion lawsuits and CTE claims, which are beginning to hammer the NFL. The NHL has settled such cases but has also somewhat successfully fought the very contention that concussions are linked to CTE.

Bettman has protected the owners like Batman protects Gotham. And this time, Bettman may have protected them from themselves.

Because the NHL will have a season, they will burn the final year of their TV contracts and be free to get paid billions more as they license their broadcasts to NBC, Fox, and/or ESPN.

Sometime this spring, fans will be able to line up to get tickets for the Stanley Cup playoffs in June (we should all be vaccinated by then, right??). Fans will be able to pour into an arena under the hot summer sun of June and July.

Players will gird themselves, battle-weary and running on adrenaline, for the chance to lift the 2021 Stanley Cup. Phil Pritchard and Mike Bolt will white-glove Lord Stanley’s chalice to a cloth draped table as the orchestral music plays. Maybe the home fans will be going bonkers. Maybe not. And, Gary Bettman will stroll onto the ice to award that Cup to a deserving team.

That fans will likely have the chance to witness the Stanley Cup presentation in 2021, that fans had the chance to witness the Stanley Cup at all in 2020, is a testament to Bettman.

After nearly three decades of needling and boos from fans, some of it well deserved, Bettman has cemented a legacy in this time of crisis.

When the next Stanley Cup is lifted, Bettman has earned a few cheers.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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1 year ago

Dan your assuming that everyone will get vaccinated there’s going to be a lot of players fans and general public that will not get the vaccine. It was rushed out and they have no clue of what the side effects will be for many years to go to find out.

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