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Bartley Kives / This City


If you don't have something nice to say about Bettman ...

you're not alone

"Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth."

-- King Solomon, from the Thirty Sayings of the Wise in the Book of Proverbs

For several thousand years, wise people have been urging their buddies to avoid gloating when bad things happen to other people, even when the bad guys probably deserve to take a fall.

Pretty much every biblical and classical figure worth citing suggests it's not just wrong to revel in what the Germans call schadenfreude, but probably counterproductive.

In the Old Testament, Solomon famously warned God may get off the celestial couch and start slinging a few lightning bolts in your direction if you make the stupid mistake of being a little too pleased about the downfall of an enemy.

In a similar vein, Greek philosophers warned this sort of sentiment may be a form of tempting fate. And the Romans had something to say about the subject, too.

"Revenge is always the weak pleasure of a little and narrow mind," said the poet Juvenal, taking the concept from metaphysical world to a more psychological one.

"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," added Gandhi about 20 centuries later, turning western tradition on its head.

A mature person might pay attention to this advice. But for many Winnipeggers, there was no way to be mature, let alone magnanimous, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman came to town on Tuesday.

"It is nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years," Bettman said as True North Sports & Entertainment announced it had completed a deal to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers and bring the NHL back to Winnipeg. "We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn't left in 1996."

No less sincere words had ever been uttered. Near the corner of Portage and Main, where the MTS Centre press conference was displayed on a TV screen, hockey fans who gathered to celebrate the return of the NHL booed as if their lungs may never get the chance to be used again.

They weren't booing the return of the NHL, of course. They were booing Gary Bettman, the personal embodiment of all that is evil and corporate about professional sports, in the eyes of Winnipeg hockey fans.

On paper, Bettman is no more than the executive most responsible for the NHL's unlikely and ill-advised expansion across the U.S. South.

But in the hearts of Winnipeggers, he is the man we hold responsible for the NHL leaving town in 1995-96, even though our brains know full well it was all about the economics of the game and the inability of Barry Shenkarow to keep the Jets afloat in the Winnipeg Enterprises-owned Winnipeg Arena.

Why do we hate Bettman so? Partly because he couldn't be bothered to attempt to sound empathetic. But also because we really do believe he does not care about us or the game.

"This is not an NHL decision. This is really up to the people in Winnipeg and the prospective owners," Bettman famously uttered on May 3, 1995, at the beginning of the long, doomed struggle to retain the Jets.

Of course, if it was "up to the people of Winnipeg," the Jets never would have left town. They would have remained and lost millions for more than a decade.

The love of hockey is not logical in this city. It is emotional and even spiritual. It may even be pathological, as reclaiming our long-lost Jets was not just a dream but an obsession for many fans during the city's 15-year period in the NHL wilderness.

I can say this so emphatically because I do not behave in a logical manner when it comes to the subject. During the summer of 1995, when the city tried and failed to keep the Jets, I was one of those weepy-eyed 25-year-old men who wailed about the unspeakable indignity being inflicted upon my city.

I carried the anger around for decades, to the point of completely shunning an NHL I used to follow obsessively. I have not watched an NHL game in its entirety since the final Jets game on April 28, 1996, when the Detroit Red Wings eliminated Winnipeg from the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Since then, I've watched Olympic hockey. I've watched world junior games. I've watched women's hockey. But the NHL has been completely dead to me.

The pain of the loss of the team I had loved since the days when my late father took me to see the WHA Jets play the likes of the Birmingham Bulls and Houston Aeros simply was too great.

As I said just last week, Winnipeg survived the loss of the NHL. Winnipeg even flourished in its absence. And Winnipeg will survive the jingoistic outpouring of irrational civic boosterism that's accompanied the NHL's return.

When the announcement finally arrived, I didn't feel much at first. I wasn't elated, like many others. I just felt numb, at least at first.

The emotional juices really only started flowing when the fans at Portage and Main started booing Gary Bettman. It was a beautiful display of Winnipeg insolence.

In his own odd little way, the man was attempting to be gracious upon the return of the NHL. But we treated him like the rat we believe him to be.

Yes, schadenfreude is immature. Yes, it would be far wiser to allow the past to whither away and die.

But I'm personally not prepared to be a bigger man than Gary Bettman, whose utterances over the years about Winnipeg recall not the wisdom of Solomon, but the Machiavellianism of the unseen subject of What Slayde Says, the 1988 indie-rock classic by No Means No:

Slayde's always talking. And it's rarely nice.

He's always whispering his poisonous advice.

He is secretive, ruthless and cold.

He mentions just enough and leaves the rest untold.

He said: "Don't ever risk an open attack.

"Just smile into their faces and then stab them in the back."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2011 A8

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