The National Hockey League has a fine mess on its hands right now, one that couldn't be swept under the carpet despite the best efforts of commissioner Gary Bettman during his annual Stanley Cup Final "state of the union" address on Monday.

Opinion

The National Hockey League has a fine mess on its hands right now, one that couldn't be swept under the carpet despite the best efforts of commissioner Gary Bettman during his annual Stanley Cup Final "state of the union" address on Monday.

A sexual assault scandal surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks is at the top of the list. The way the league is handling the situation is shameful at best, downright negligent at worst. If not for some dogged recent reporting, news that two former players claimed they were molested by a video coach back in 2010 would remain hidden, just as it had for more than a decade.

Now it's out in the open — and that Blackhawks management allegedly refused to go to police and even gave the accused, Brad Aldrich, a glowing letter of reference after he left the team — Bettman didn't exactly send a strong message that he's taking it seriously. This, despite the fact Aldrich was later accused of other sex-based incidents, including one against a 16-year-old high-school hockey player in Michigan which landed him a jail sentence.

Bettman spent the first 15 minutes of his Zoom availability giving a prepared speech, one that included ample back-patting and horn-tooting and covered virtually every subject under the sun. Except, of course, the one making headlines around the hockey world. It was a stunning act of tone-deaf defiance.

The topic couldn't be avoided once the question-and-answer format began, but the uninspiring performance from the most powerful man in hockey continued. Bettman insisted they'll take a wait-and-see approach with a so-called independent investigation, announced earlier in the day Monday by the Blackhawks themselves, in which a former federal prosecutor has been retained to supposedly get to the bottom of this.

Bettman said they only learned of the allegations "recently," via Chicago's lawyers, but didn't provide any other specifics. Who knew what and when, and why no action was taken, must be put under a microscope, especially with so many of the parties still employed in various NHL positions. If guilt can be proven, heads must roll.

"Whenever you hear allegations like that, they are concerning. But my first reaction is tell me the facts. Once we know what the facts are, we're in a better position to evaluate what may or may not need to be done," said Bettman.

Pressed further on the matter, he got his back up. "I think everybody is jumping too far, too fast. This is going to be handled professional and appropriately and done right," he huffed.

"What we know is based on what's public. That's why we're going to be interested to see what the investigation reveals and doesn't reveal. I think everybody needs to not get ahead of themselves. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to piece things together."

That's pretty rich, considering the passage of time and the fact numerous former players, including Brent Sopel and Nick Boynton, along with ex-assistant coach John Torchetti have all spoken publicly and confirmed details of the alleged cover-up. And allowing Chicago to be anywhere near this situation, as they have by selecting a law firm to give them a once-over, should have been a non-starter.

Unfortunately, this reeks of a league which hopes this will all just quietly go away. Bettman wouldn't even commit to making the results of the investigation public, which should tell you everything you need to know.

Speaking of shameful, the NHL's revolving wheel of justice pertaining to player discipline, issues of game management by referees and inconsistent penalty calling, including standards that often seem to change within specific games, were all hot topics Monday.

Rather than commit to a much-needed review of officiating and player safety, Bettman suggesting it is basically a molehill being made into a mountain. This, despite admitting the NHL regular-season and playoffs typically look extremely different — something he chalked up to the players, not the officials.

"It seems every season it's a playoff ritual," he said, touting NHL referees as "the best officials in any sport." Bettman said the game is faster than ever, suggested technology has unfairly led to increased scrutiny and held firm that there is no reason for change.

"Yes, our officials miss calls. Not as many as some suggest, but they occasionally miss calls. We don't like it when it happens. In fact we hate it. but its the nature of the human element of calling our game," he said.

Translation: Nothing to see here, folks. Expect more of the same.

Finally, hockey fans hoping for some good news Monday when it comes to the upcoming Winter Olympics were dealt a dose of disappointment. Bettman suggested time is running out to make 2022 in Beijing happen, despite a negotiated agreement with players last year which guaranteed it.

The league is planning to release its full 2021-22 schedule during the week of July 19. And right now, that doesn't include shutting things down for three weeks next winter to send the world's best players to China. Between ongoing COVID-19 concerns, insurance issues and timing, the highly-anticipated return to the global stage for the first time since 2014 is very much in jeopardy.

"We have real concerns about whether or not it's sensible to be participating and us shutting down for the Olympic break," said Bettman. "We made a promise that if it could all work out we'd go along with it, but we are concerned, both about the timing and about the open issues and the prospects of actually being there."

Terrific.

Look, there's plenty to celebrate when it comes to hockey right now. As Bettman pointed out in his opening remarks, the fact a near-capacity crowd was heading inside Amalie Arena for Game 1 Monday night is a "vivid sign we are getting there," when it comes to fighting through the global pandemic, especially since the campaign began in mid-January in empty rinks across North America.

"We are thrilled to be welcoming our fans back in person," said Bettman, noting 1,077 games have now been played since the March 2020 pause. "This has been an excruciating 15 months for everyone."

There were other positive developments, including an additional $5 million in funding towards diversity and inclusion as part of the league's social impact group, 72 new corporate partners, the recently-signed new American TV deals with ESPN and Turner Sports and the return of marquee events including the Winter Classic in St. Paul, All-Star game in Las Vegas, outdoor Stadium Series game in Nashville and a potential outdoor game in Canada next March.

Unfortunately, all the glossy announcements in the world can't hide the fact the NHL still has a ton of work left to get its house in order. And the guy holding all the tools doesn't seem to be in any hurry on that front.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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