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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 ...

His applauders have been less vocal, but there are those who believe if not for Bettman, Canadian franchises might have been lost in Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary, perhaps even Montreal and Vancouver as well.

"The Canadian franchises as a group have never been stronger," he says.

It is true, in no small part from the rise of the Canadian dollar but also in part to the Canadian team assistance plan that Bettman brought in when several Canadian teams were teetering at the turn of the century.

Bettman is also on record suggesting that if struggling teams must move, Quebec City and Winnipeg are in a priority position. While it can be argued this comes from a realization that hockey doesn't work in the south and is, by best definition, a northern game, it could also be evidence that Bettman has grown in his 18 years in office. "Canada," he says, "is the heart and soul of this game."

Words are easy, of course, and Bettman is nothing if not politically attuned. Still, he has made an annual commitment to visiting each Canadian franchise, usually coming in winter as he says he likes nothing better than the "incredible warmth" one feels on entering a Canadian rink on game day. He has attended rink fundraisers in places as far removed from the franchise map as Estevan, Sask. He has vacationed in St. Andrews by-the-Sea, N.B., Quebec City, various Quebec ski resorts and, for his 50th birthday, he and his wife Shelli took several friends off for more than a week in the Canadian Rockies.

He has also become increasingly friendly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, several times getting together merely to talk about the game.

"I think one of the things we share is an acknowledgment of the importance of the game to Canada," Bettman says, "and the importance of Canada to the game."

He knows he will never be cheered in Canada - booing heads of sports leagues is part of fan ritual - but says the boos from the stands, not to mention the anonymous web attacks, are very much at variance with what he hears face-to-face with Canadian fans. They like "the product," as the man at the Garden shouted out. They like the "cost certainty" that came with the salary cap. They realize that the league is much healthier financially, with revenues soaring during his tenure to $2.9-billion this year from $460-million (all currency U.S.). They mostly like the new rules that opened up the game. And they like that NHLers now compete in the Olympics, of particular import to reigning gold-medal winner Canada.

But he still gets it - and will get it again as these comments are dispersed.

"I've developed a thick skin about it," he says. "You can't be thin-skinned and still do whatever you think is right."

He is well used to the most common knock given to all in hockey who have never had their own rookie card - "Where'dya play yer hockey, Gary?" - and his answer is simple: "They don't pay me to play."

They do pay him, however, every bit as much as a top player: in the $7-million-a-year range. The multimillionaire Gary Bettman is a far cry from the kid who used to pack a lunch, catch the subway and use his student card to land a 50-cent by the rafters so he could watch basketball or hockey while doing his homework.

He grew up in a small Queen's apartment, the child of a single mother who had divorced when her boy was four. Divorce was rare in the mid-1950s and Bettman finds it difficult to speak about such an obviously painful time. He tried to fit in by playing all the street sports - his small stature making stardom impossible - but found his place in becoming the neighbourhood expert in all the new teams that were coming along.

He avoided the standbys - hockey's Rangers, baseball's Yankees, basketball's Knicks and football's Giants - and instead embraced the Jets, the Nets, the Mets and the Islanders.

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