Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's nutty to diss the commish

In terms of image, Bettman is his own worst enemy

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It's a summer evening at the lake. Friends and acquaintences are gathered and the chatter, like in so many places around the province and even across Canada, is about the NHL's return to Winnipeg.

The Jets are back.

At this particular setting, the topic is about the good guys and bad guys in the story. Mainly it's about the good guys until, as is quite common, the name of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is raised.


Someone says he had a lot of nerve looking so pleased at the May 31 announcement here. Another says it looked good on him that the Vancouver fans booed him lustily after Game 7 of the final.

And then she spoke.

A young lady, someone I barely know, someone who is a hockey fan but not passionately so, someone who is not old enough to have all the Winnipeg baggage of 1996, did not like what she had just heard.

"Me, I wanted to walk right down on that ice and give him a hug," she said of the Vancouver incident. "It's just wrong."

True story, and nobody could convince her she was wrong.

And it raised a good point. What exactly has Gary Bettman done to be so disliked, even hated, by so many Winnipeg and Canadian hockey fans?

Move Winnipeg and Quebec franchises to the U.S.? Fine, but last time we checked, the fact that there were no potential owners, terrible arenas and a low Canadian dollar in those days was not Bettman's fault.

Neither are rainy days and losing lottery tickets, but there is no shortage of people who act like the NHL commissioner ruins their every day.

Fast forward to 2011 and it is incomprehensible how Bettman can be reviled for ushering the league back to Winnipeg in 2011.

But that perception continues, in many media outlets, in many instances during the May 31 celebrations here, even in a Winnipeg hair salon that proudly boasted in early June that Bettman was not welcome here.

It's logic at its wackiest.

"I've said this I don't know how many times or ways, that (Bettman) kind of put his chips on us several years ago and gave us the room, probably ahead of others, to do this," said Jets co-owner Mark Chipman. "He took us at face value early on so I think he absolutely played a role in the team coming back to Winnipeg."

"A role" is sharply understating it.

"He's very responsible for it (the NHL's return)," Chipman agreed. "He could have brushed us aside on any number of occasions. When it got formal for the first time (in 2007) we were in some pretty heavy company."

That included Kansas City, Seattle, Houston and Las Vegas.

"I have to believe if he hadn't seen whatever he saw in '07 and thereafter, we could have been easily pushed to the sidelines," Chipman said. "But he never did."

Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold remembers it the same way.

"I remember when Mark Chipman came into the executive committee to discuss Winnipeg," he told the Free Press this week. "Probably the most important criteria for moving a franchise is who the owner is. With Mr. Thomson and Mr. Chipman, it's probably the strongest ownership group in the NHL. You have someone who's passionately in love with the game and with deep pockets, so it's a great ownership group.

"Before that executive committee meeting, I didn't really know who Mark Chipman was but when he left that room, we all kind of looked around and said, 'You know, this guy's got it together.' Although the arena is a small arena by NHL standards, Mark Chipman had a plan and I think he's going to prove to be correct, that hockey's going to work in Winnipeg.

"At that point in time, everybody's opinion about Winnipeg changed."

Given the result, and now what we're discovering about the process since 2007, it's hard to fathom Bettman being viewed with such hostility.

"The Canadian press seems to make it appear as if it's a strategy of Gary's not to let teams move to Canada," Leipold said. "The fact is, his strategy is that he doesn't want teams to move anywhere. But I can tell you I have never heard any negative comments from Gary about the Canadian markets, yet I always read in the Canadian newspapers how Gary is not fair to the Canadian markets and doesn't give them due respect. I don't think that is based in any reality."

Chipman said the "anti-Canadian" view of Bettman is simply lazy and too easy.

"I think it's twofold," Chipman said. "In Winnipeg when the team left, people were looking to villify something or someone. The NHL was an easy target. And then there was what was referred to as the southern experiment. It seemed to be at odds with our interests. It was easy, like a lazy argument to make.

"And it just became a self-perpetuating feeling, easy to pile on, easy to do. I've never, ever got that feeling from him."

Still, it is no great secret that Bettman can be his own worst enemy in terms of image.

The commissioner has been prone to being argumentative and he will object to the slightest error, even in the preamble to a question.

He's more than ultra-smart, often likes to let the room know it and, as much as his close advisers have tried to temper this characteristic over the years, he readily engages the verbal jousting because he knows or feels he's simply right.

Correctly or not, it is frequently perceived as arrogant, dismissive, intolerant.

Bettman leaves a far better impression in smaller settings, or even one-on-one.

Leipold mentioned the Canadian press and though not universal, it's generally accurate to say Bettman gets a very rough ride in the biggest media markets, especially Toronto, for a variety of reasons, including that it is believed he doesn't champion the interests of the largest markets.

When the commissioner was seen in both 1994 and 2004 to be advocating for collective bargaining agreements better for small markets, he was virtually thrown under the bus for it. The past disdain with which the Edmontons, Ottawas and Winnipegs of the world were referred to in the Ontario capital leaves no doubt.

Bettman's reaction to all this vitriol?

He doesn't seem to care.

"It's not even criticism," he told the Free Press in June. "It's become a routine. The fact is, there is a picture that has been painted in some places that doesn't reflect the reality. I understand that. Most importantly to the extent it demonstrates the passion by our fans about our game, I am completely comfortable with that."

However he feels, it isn't trendy or popular to voice support for the commissioner. His critics simply say that those that do are apologists or suckups. But the facts, especially in the Winnipeg case, are not on his critics' side.

Chipman is not expecting a standing ovation for Bettman on Sunday. The young lady isn't likely to get access for that hug, either. But whatever the national, grander issues, a little gratitude in this case isn't asking for a lot.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 7, 2011 C4

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