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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman poses at the offices of the National Hockey League in New York, April 19, 2011. The NHL has instructed its general managers to conduct business as usual despite impending collective bargaining talks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Richard Drew (Richard Drew/AP2011)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman poses at the offices of the National Hockey League in New York, April 19, 2011. The NHL has instructed its general managers to conduct business as usual despite impending collective bargaining talks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Richard Drew (Richard Drew/AP2011)

JEFF BLAIR

Is Gary Bettman peaking at the right time? Add to ...

Remember while the Phoenix Coyotes go about their business that the sale of the team is not yet complete, and that this being the NHL it’s always wise to assume there’s some complication buried in one sub-clause or another.

It’s what happens when many of your owners are plucked off the ‘B’ or ‘C’ list, and playing with other people’s money.

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But even Gary Bettman’s harshest critics must take a look at what is transpiring in these playoffs and wonder if the NHL commissioner is on some kind of roll. True, the hockey has on many nights been a mundane festival of shot blocking and is over-coached to the point of tedium but the only people noticing seem to be Canadian hockey fans, and as the NHL knows they’ll watch paint dry if it’s sponsored by the NHL regardless of when it’s on TV. These fans are such sheep that they won’t even demand Saturday night playoff hockey.

In some ways we have Raffi Torres’s idiocy to thank. The Phoenix forward’s assault on Chicago winger Marian Hossa in the first round of the playoffs gave chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan a clean breakaway on an open net: a recidivist of modest talent whose absence wouldn’t be missed; a disposable miscreant not worth much fuss. So Shanahan, who along with his deputies misplaced their intellectual compass in the playoffs’ initial stages – to be polite – dropped the hammer, sending a message in the process. There have been incidents since, but none that egregiously violate the mores and strictures of the NHL, such as they are.

And now, Bettman can see a dream final for U.S. television: the New York Rangers against the Los Angeles Kings. It is the matchup that every league in every sport desires and don’t think the conspiracy theorists won’t be analyzing every officials call made during the conference finals. Seriously, this is such a slam-dunk I wouldn’t even hold it against the NHL if it rigged things to get those teams through. I know I would. And so would you, most likely.

The Kings are not exactly a strong local brand in L.A at the best of times, let alone when the Lakers are in the NBA playoffs. In fact, as the L.A. Daily News noted, the Kings were 26th out of 30 NHL teams in local TV ratings. But considering the boffo numbers that the NHL is doing early in its 10-year, $2-billion (U.S.) network deal with NBC Universal – evidence exists that the NHL is cutting into the NBA’s ratings, if not exactly blowing it out of the water in terms of revenue – a cross-country matchup between the two biggest TV markets would be an astounding marketing confluence.

There are issues, of course. Subjecting viewers, advertisers and followers to a steady diet of news conferences by Grim and Grimmer – Kings head coach Darryl Sutter and Rangers head coach John Tortorella – would take some of the lustre off the final. They’ll squeeze the life out of the series off the ice, and somebody at the NHL head office might want to tell Tortorella that he is the head coach of a U.S.-based hockey team and as such is in no danger of supplanting the Rex Ryans of the world as a media “personality,” so he might want to tone down the jack-assery. Sutter is a Sutter. That can’t be fixed.

There are positive signs, then, for the NHL this playoff season. The hand-wringers wondered what it meant that ratings took off against the background of early-round thuggery, but those ratings have largely held firm as the mayhem has dissipated. The hockey hasn’t been great, but nobody’s died; the blood-lust has been titillated, if not entirely satiated. If Bettman gets his dream final and really has solved financial issues in Phoenix, St. Louis and New Jersey, he will go into a summer of collective bargaining with a spring in his tiny little loafers. Suggestions remain that Bettman is less interested in a fair agreement with the NHL Players Association than he is in proving he’s a bigger man than union head Donald Fehr, so this winning streak could be short-lived.

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