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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at the Reuters Global Media Summit in New York, December 1, 2009. (BRENDAN MCDERMID)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at the Reuters Global Media Summit in New York, December 1, 2009. (BRENDAN MCDERMID)

Stephen Brunt

Bettman: villain to many Add to ...

Really, all that's missing is a twirled black mustache.

Gary Bettman, who this year sits atop The Globe and Mail's list of the 50 biggest movers and shakers in sport, has become Canada's cartoon villain, the guy who controls hockey and hates the land that spawned it, who holds a big piece of our culture in his hands and is not one of us.

True? Not really. But we all need our bad guys. And Bettman's evil-doer image in Canada was all but engraved in stone last year when he was forced into a nasty war with Jim Balsillie over the fate of the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes.

The NHL won the battle when the court refused to wade into the murky world of anti-trust law and award Balsillie the team. But the problem of the franchise is still far from resolved, and Bettman, personally, lost the propaganda war.

While Balsillie cast himself as Captain Canada with his Make It Seven campaign, Bettman was portrayed as the guy who wanted to keep hockey in the desert where it wasn't appreciated - the ex-Winnipeg Jets, no less - while stomping on the hopes and dreams of poor old Hamilton.

That he was representing the interests of his employers - the owners - that he was fighting mostly to avoid a potentially even more destructive confrontation with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres over territorial rights, was pretty much lost in the background noise.

In Canada, NHL commissioners are perceived differently than other sports bosses, because of the willfully blurred line between the game as culture and the New York-based entertainment concern that operates it at its highest level. That's as true now as it was when Gordie Howe was persuaded to take a new hockey jacket in lieu of a raise.

As the face of that business/cultural institution, Bettman has from the beginning of his tenure been perceived by Canadians as an unwelcome outsider. He is not a "hockey guy" by any stretch, and he is regarded as the architect of a strategy that left Winnipeg and Quebec City high and dry while forcing the game on Americans who didn't really want it.

The exception was a brief, shining moment not so long ago when the league's economics of the day forced Bettman to advocate for government subsidies to assist Canadian NHL franchises crippled by the fading dollar. For that, he was hailed in some quarters a hero in his non-native land.

Largely lost in all of the emotion is a dispassionate take on Bettman's true strengths and weaknesses.

To start with, the Sunbelt Strategy wasn't his invention. He was hired in 1989 by then board of governors chairman Bruce McNall to execute an idea that had become the league's guiding principle after Wayne Gretzky was sold to the Los Angeles Kings, and the game temporarily flourished there.

Along with the business of selling expansion franchises, Bettman was charged with finding network television riches and souping up the NHL marketing machine along the lines of his previous employer, the NBA.

Everyone knows the successes and failures in the interim, most of them the result of changing currents in sport and broadcasting far beyond the NHL's control. And everyone understands the double-edged sword that was Bettman's signature moment as commissioner - the lockout that cost the league a season, broke the players' union, and resulted in a remarkably flawed collective agreement from the owners' point of view, given their near-total victory.

Like all long-serving commissioners, Bettman has come to understand that the key to survival is the consolidation and maintenance of power, to make sure the guys who like you - or at least owe you something - outnumber your enemies. Though he serves at the pleasure of the owners, some of whom can't be thrilled with everything he's done, Bettman has traded favours and influence and created a nearly unassailable base (not unlike Bud Selig). He is the boss. And while he may lack in the warmth and charm department, while he can be aloof and thin-skinned, while he will never be mistaken for a folksy hockey dad sipping hot chocolate in a small-town rink, he is also nobody's fool. Even in these treacherous economic times, when all professional sports are taking a beating, Bettman has kept his league at least a half step ahead of disaster.

That, and Canada's continuing passion for hockey, is why he's at the top of the list.

That is also why he's not going anywhere, why he will be around to give Canadian fans a focus for their enmity, just as long as he wants to be.

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