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Bettman biography crisply written overview of man, NHL

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This is a crisply written, carefully researched and thought-provoking biography about a sports icon neither beloved nor athletic but who's arguably the most powerful figure pro hockey has ever known.

New York-born lawyer Gary Bettman has been commissioner of the NHL since 1993. Besides the current stoppage, he's overseen two prior lockouts -- 1994-95, which saw the season reduced from 84 to 48 games, and 2004-05, which saw the entire season cancelled.

So any biography of him is inevitably also a de facto history of the NHL of the last two decades.

Author Jonathon Gatehouse is a Toronto-based senior correspondent for Maclean's magazine. This is his first book.

Great swaths of it are devoted to the decline, fall and resurrection of the Winnipeg Jets.

There's lots of inside dope on the local principals of the Manitoba Entertainment Complex (MEC) and the Spirit of Manitoba group that in 1995, in turn, launched abortive attempts to save the Jets.

(The Jets lasted until the next year. They played their last home game in April 1996. In the interim, the Quebec Nordiques departed Quebec City for Denver, Colo.)

Local luminaries and politicos such as John Loewen, Izzy Asper, Mark Chipman and former mayor Susan Thompson enter and exit like actors in a stage play in Gatehouse's excellent retelling of the team's long goodbye.

Obviously, though, Gatehouse is not as focused on Jets history as Free Press reporter Randy Turner was in last year's Free Press-published Jets history, Back in the Bigs.

But Gatehouse's chapter on the return of the Jets is still pretty good.

He deftly recounts Mark Chipman's slow and patient wooing of Bettman and the league's board of governors, and greatly flatters the acumen of both him and the True North organization.

This is in pointed contrast to Gatehouse's portrayal of Research in Motion (RIM) co-founder and former co-CEO Jim Balsillie's multiple clumsy, bellicose and failed attempts to buy a team -- successively, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes -- and move it to Hamilton.

Gatehouse draws a nuanced and unsparing picture of the brittle and complex guy who's got a lot to say about whether there's ever going to be a 2012-13 NHL season.

And he recreates the drama of not only on-ice hockey events but also boardroom negotiations. Labour stoppages, buying and selling (and relocating) teams and financing deals are recounted with the same verve as historic events from games.

The biographical details of Bettman's life are a lot less exciting. He was born in New York city in 1952 and grew up with no athletic ambitions. He played no college sports.

After law school, he went from a law firm to a position as assistant general counsel of the NBA to his present job, succeeding Gil Stein. It was altogether an unremarkable progression.

Gatehouse attributes much of Bettman's acrimonious relationship with Canadians to our investing "the game with all the mythic traits of strong and free nationalism" and an abiding "notion that no one born south of the border can truly understand or appreciate our shared passion."

But he also acknowledges an animus is due the commissioner, grounded in the reality of the league having too many teams, with too many marginal players and in too many failing American markets (Phoenix, Columbus, Florida).

His verdict on Bettman's tenure as commissioner is mixed.

The league's gross revenue when he took over as commissioner in 1992 was $400 million; in 2012, it surpassed $3 billion. And on his watch the NHL has expanded into more U.S. markets and increased its exposure on American network television via a new $2-billion deal with NBC.

But with the current lockout (pending, but expected, even predicted, when the book went to print), he's now been at the league's helm for the nuking or truncating of three seasons of pro hockey.

Likewise, U.S. expansion has been far from an unqualified success.

Atlanta was a disaster, which happily accelerated the Thrashers' metamorphosis into the Winnipeg Jets last year. And as Jets fans know better than anyone else, the team's 1996 move to Phoenix precipitated a Sunbelt ownership-cum-financing debacle that continues to this day.

There's one ploy that grates in this otherwise fine bio.

The book's title is gratuitous. It smacks of zippy marketing, rather than a bona fide connection to the text.

It's an allusion to hockey's "instigator" rule, which gives an additional two-minute minor penalty to the player who starts a fight.

But how and why it applies to Bettman is neither explained nor discernible. Worse, it's clumsily parachuted into the text, in the next-to-last sentence of the book.

That quibble aside, Gatehouse's bio of the American who rules our game has both style and substance.

And it provides a good sense of how pro hockey, in Canada at least, isn't just a game, and isn't just a business, but much, much more.

 

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J10

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