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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a press conference before the NHL game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on March 8, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Christian Petersen/2011 Getty Images)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a press conference before the NHL game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on March 8, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Christian Petersen/2011 Getty Images)

STEPHEN BRUNT

Bettman fiddles while NHL burns Add to ...

A question arises naturally as one of the worst weeks in National Hockey League history draws to a close.

So just who is in charge here?

The referee, who decided in the moment that Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty was sufficiently serious and sufficiently against the rules to assess him a minor, major and game misconduct?

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The league's senior executive vice-president, usually the judge, jury and executioner when it comes to the NHL's disciplinary process, who in this instance had to recuse himself because his kid plays for the offending team, and who in a leaked series of e-mails was previously revealed to be a stereotypical hockey dad?

Or his second-in-command, thrust into the breach, who chatted with Chara by phone Wednesday, and then ruled that the aforementioned illegal hit, which caused profound damage to Pacioretty's neck and brain, was worthy of no supplementary discipline at all?

Or how about the commissioner, whose contract has quietly been extended another five years?

People familiar with the workings of the NHL are used to this kind of gong show, especially the hockey-obsessed populace of this country, who at this stage are way beyond eye-rolling.

But in moments like these it is especially worth stepping back and looking at the NHL afresh. There's only one conclusion to be drawn: this is no way to run a sport, no way to run a business, and the failing, in all of its permutations, is one of leadership.

There is a vacuum here, a lack of direction that no one outside of the game can right.

There's no point in calling in the police and the courts to deal with the Chara hit, and if a legal remedy is indeed pursued, history tells us that route will almost certainly lead to a dead end.

Same goes for the veiled threats from Parliament Hill, the expressions of concern from the Prime Minister's Office: just how would one legislate away what happened on Tuesday night?

At least the shot across the bow from Air Canada is something novel - hard to remember one of the league's sponsors going public with its discomfort before. But the suspicion is that was the emotional, Montreal-based response of a Montreal-based company, so don't hold your breath waiting for them to strip its name off the rink in Toronto.

Whatever is being said on the outside, credibility comes from within, and only from within. Though he is employee, not emperor, this must be Gary Bettman's time.

Sure, he's got himself into a pickle trying to make the corpse of the Phoenix Coyotes appear lifelike, juggling all kinds of conflicting interests and telling all kinds of little white lies.

Sure, the league's murky disciplinary process is tied up in knots by precedent, and no one in the game will ever be comfortable stating what seems unequivocally true: that the NHL, in part, is in the violence business, which means it is willing to accept significant risks to the health of its players.

But the role of a commissioner is also different than that of CEO, whose only concern is protecting the interests of the shareholders.

Professional sport is in many ways a faith-based entertainment business. The fans, who buy in not just for a couple of hours of distraction, but often for a lifetime, need to think of the game as distinct from the commercial aspects of the game. There is something pure and essential there, to be respected, to be protected.

A commissioner must pay at least lip service to principle. None of David Stern, Roger Goodell or Bud Selig (in descending order of confidence inspiration) are perfect, and all of them are beholden to their masters, the owners. But all have had moments when they understood they had to stand up and speak for their games.

Bettman can do that now, on the issue of Phoenix and Winnipeg, on the issue of head shots and discipline. For all the baggage, all the tawdry history, he's the only person with the power to say that what came before was wrong, and what happens from here on must be right.

Instead, what we have heard from him so far is impotent whining about the Goldwater Institute, the familiar knee-jerk defence of the Chara hit, and a veiled threat to the folks at Air Canada, suggesting that the league could always take its charter business elsewhere.

Petulance in the face of criticism and pressure: that's the measure of the man.

If Gary Bettman can't rise above it, even in these extraordinary times, then what is a commissioner for?

 

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