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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stirs the emotions of Canada's hockey fans whenever his name is mentioned.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stirs the emotions of Canada's hockey fans whenever his name is mentioned.

ROY MACGREGOR

Gary Bettman: Igniting Canada's hockey passions Add to ...

Impossible not to think of Canada here on the 15th floor of a building that sits, appropriately, on the Avenue of the Americas.

Snowflakes the size of pucks are floating down this late January day, turning everything from Times Square a block over to Central Park, visible straight down Sixth Avenue, into a northern winter delight. Canada's national game is on display everywhere - from photographs of famous Canadian hockey players to replicas of every name that has ever appeared on the Stanley Cup. There are Inuit sculptures on the shelves and a coffee table that holds a handsome book on America's northern neighbour that has been signed "To a great friend of Canada - Stephen Harper."

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The Prime Minister's great friend is none other than Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League these past 18 years. While the changes in the game he oversees have been dramatic - new franchises created in the south, teams moved from Quebec City to Denver and from Winnipeg to Phoenix, the players locked out by the owners for the entire 2004-05 season, the game reinvented to reward skill and speed, a salary cap put in place, Gretzky and Lemieux replaced by Crosby and Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby sidelined with the game's current curse, concussion - Bettman himself seems barely to have changed at all.

He remains, at 58, a trim, smaller man whose jet-black hair remains precisely in place as well as space. His dark suits are as much a certainty as Dick Tracy's. He speaks with hands that often pound points home with fingers. He moves with an agility fully recovered from last fall's arthroscopic surgery on his knee and, this snowy day in Manhattan, he is off to a hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers.

It is a seesaw game, fast and turning, the crowd in Madison Square Garden rising and falling with every goal, Florida with the lead gained and lost, then the Panthers winning on their own comeback.

Fans all about leap to their feet, sag in their seats, scream and sigh as the game moves on. He watches carefully but, watching him, it would be impossible to tell what is happening on the ice or, for that matter, what is happening in his thoughts.

"I never cheer," he says. He has trained himself not to show emotion during a game. "I can't cheer. If I show emotion one way or the other, people get upset."

He does, however, from time to time attend NHL games as a "regular fan." It happens in New Jersey, close to where Bettman will sometimes take his four-year-old grandson - a Devils fan - to a match, the crowd unaware that the unshaven, sunglass-and-cap wearing man in jeans and an old sweater high-fiving with the little kid is actually the commissioner of the league.

This night, however, he is in familiar uniform: dark suit, crisp shirt, red tie. He sits where the fans sit, and when he moves through the crowds and corridors the reception is, to a Canadian, somewhat surprising.

"Great job, Gary," a man cries out

A woman wants a photograph with him.

"Love the product!" a man shouts as he passes by.

What would they shout in Canada? One man swilling a beer in one of the Garden corridor bars shouts sarcastically from a distance - "Where'dya play yer hockey, Gary?" - but all the rest are polite and approving.

Bettman's image in the country that calls hockey its national game and treats it as national religion is, at times, as polarized as Sarah Palin's in the United States. He is blamed for everything from the demise of the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets to the league's endless debates on what to do about head shots, one of which is threatening the year, if not the career, of Sidney Crosby, Canada's golden Olympic hero. Bettman has been accused of denying Hamilton its chance at an NHL franchise when BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie was rebuffed in attempts to take over the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes, potentially bringing an NHL franchise to Hamilton.

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