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Kurt Walker, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1976 - 1977. (file photo)
Kurt Walker, Toronto Maple Leafs, 1976 - 1977. (file photo)

Sean Gordon

Seven seasons, 17 surgeries and Kurt Walker is still in pain Add to ...

“We believe that this is a lawsuit without merit ... and we intend to defend it vigorously. We have been extremely proactive on the whole issue of player safety, we think our record in that regard speaks volumes,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during last week’s announcement of the league’s mega-deal with Rogers Communications Inc.

Legal experts suggest the NHL will almost certainly deny it has any further obligation to the former players.

“The first defence will likely be that these claims have been pre-empted by collective bargaining and that it’s not a matter for the courts,” said Michael McCann, a sports-law expert at the University of New Hampshire who believes the NHL is in a position to muster stronger arguments than the NFL did.

McCann said even if efforts to dismiss the case fail – “I’d be very surprised if this ever gets to a jury” – the NFL lawsuit was settled as the parties began the discovery process, which would have forced the league to turn over documents on a number of fronts.

One thing the NHL won’t be able to say – certainly not as convincingly as in the past – is it doesn’t have the means to help out its broken and battered retirees.

Coupled with the 10-year, $2-billion U.S. television deal it signed in 2011 with NBC Sports, the Rogers pact means the NHL’s North American annual broadcast rights are worth only slightly less than the NBA’s.

The increased revenue, which is divided among all the clubs, will ease the pressure on the league’s financial basket cases – who are largely located in the U.S. Sun Belt.

Grim predictions that the NHL would be overtaken as a spectator sport in the United States by the likes of NASCAR, will need to be revised.

Indeed, it’s been a remarkable two years for Bettman, who signed the NBC contract, negotiated a raft of national sponsorships (including a multimillion-dollar arrangement with Molson Coors Brewing Co.), forced a work stoppage that ultimately delivered a 10-year collective agreement, then capped it off with the multibillion-dollar Canadian-rights deal.

It’s expected he will put yet more cash into the owners’ – and by extension, players’ – pockets within the next three or four years, when the league decides to go ahead with its not-so-secret expansion plans.

Questions of legacy are believed to matter to Bettman – some in the hockey world believe he could step aside in or around 2017, when the league celebrates its centennial and the commissioner reaches pensionable age.

Foster said she considers Bettman “a hero” for what he did to bolster the pension scheme – something she said is due primarily to the commissioner’s wheeling and dealing.

The retired players clearly hope Bettman will add another element to his bequest before retiring: A financial settlement that can help ease the pain of men who gave their all to the game.

With a report from Allan Maki in Calgary

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