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Gary Bettman: Igniting Canada's hockey passions

Impossible not to think of Canada here on the 15th floor of a building that sits, appropriately, on the Avenue of the Americas.

Snowflakes the size of pucks are floating down this late January day, turning everything from Times Square a block over to Central Park, visible straight down Sixth Avenue, into a northern winter delight. Canada's national game is on display everywhere - from photographs of famous Canadian hockey players to replicas of every name that has ever appeared on the Stanley Cup. There are Inuit sculptures on the shelves and a coffee table that holds a handsome book on America's northern neighbour that has been signed "To a great friend of Canada - Stephen Harper."

The Prime Minister's great friend is none other than Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League these past 18 years. While the changes in the game he oversees have been dramatic - new franchises created in the south, teams moved from Quebec City to Denver and from Winnipeg to Phoenix, the players locked out by the owners for the entire 2004-05 season, the game reinvented to reward skill and speed, a salary cap put in place, Gretzky and Lemieux replaced by Crosby and Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby sidelined with the game's current curse, concussion - Bettman himself seems barely to have changed at all.

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He remains, at 58, a trim, smaller man whose jet-black hair remains precisely in place as well as space. His dark suits are as much a certainty as Dick Tracy's. He speaks with hands that often pound points home with fingers. He moves with an agility fully recovered from last fall's arthroscopic surgery on his knee and, this snowy day in Manhattan, he is off to a hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers.

It is a seesaw game, fast and turning, the crowd in Madison Square Garden rising and falling with every goal, Florida with the lead gained and lost, then the Panthers winning on their own comeback.

Fans all about leap to their feet, sag in their seats, scream and sigh as the game moves on. He watches carefully but, watching him, it would be impossible to tell what is happening on the ice or, for that matter, what is happening in his thoughts.

"I never cheer," he says. He has trained himself not to show emotion during a game. "I can't cheer. If I show emotion one way or the other, people get upset."

He does, however, from time to time attend NHL games as a "regular fan." It happens in New Jersey, close to where Bettman will sometimes take his four-year-old grandson - a Devils fan - to a match, the crowd unaware that the unshaven, sunglass-and-cap wearing man in jeans and an old sweater high-fiving with the little kid is actually the commissioner of the league.

This night, however, he is in familiar uniform: dark suit, crisp shirt, red tie. He sits where the fans sit, and when he moves through the crowds and corridors the reception is, to a Canadian, somewhat surprising.

"Great job, Gary," a man cries out

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A woman wants a photograph with him.

"Love the product!" a man shouts as he passes by.

What would they shout in Canada? One man swilling a beer in one of the Garden corridor bars shouts sarcastically from a distance - "Where'dya play yer hockey, Gary?" - but all the rest are polite and approving.

Bettman's image in the country that calls hockey its national game and treats it as national religion is, at times, as polarized as Sarah Palin's in the United States. He is blamed for everything from the demise of the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets to the league's endless debates on what to do about head shots, one of which is threatening the year, if not the career, of Sidney Crosby, Canada's golden Olympic hero. Bettman has been accused of denying Hamilton its chance at an NHL franchise when BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie was rebuffed in attempts to take over the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes, potentially bringing an NHL franchise to Hamilton.

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.

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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.

"I had no father to pass down the history of those teams," he says, though his mother did remarry when he was a teenager and they moved to the Island. With franchise teams he found he "could start from the beginning and no one would know more about his teams than he did himself." It made him self-contained and compartmentalized, and he remains so to this day.

"It was the ultimate coping mechanism," he concedes.

Bettman was 13 when his biological father died, leaving money that eventually helped the youngster go to Cornell University, where he studied labour relations and later went into law. This, plus his love of sports, took him to the National Basketball Association and, on Feb. 1, 1993, he became head of the NHL. Only Frank Calder (1917-43) and Clarence Campbell (1946-77) have served longer.

Life has changed dramatically from that little apartment in Queen's. He and Shelli live in upscale Saddle River, N.J., where they raised three children and now have their two grandchildren temporarily living with them while eldest daughter Lauren's house is under construction.

When he travels, it is with security - a reality that began during the earlier 1994 half-season lockout when player Chris Chelios angrily said Bettman should worry about his family and own well-being, as some crazed fan or a player "might take matters into their own hands."

He still ignites anger, though such veiled threats are no longer spoken. But he also inspires enough loyalty that senior staff have largely stayed with him over the years and the various league owners - traditionally individualistic and at times difficult - have stuck by him despite occasional flare-ups.

The greatest example of owner solidarity under Bettman concerns the situation in Phoenix, where the Coyotes have bounced from box-office disaster to the courts to several different potential ownership deals. It was Bettman who convinced the owners that the league itself had to buy the team to prevent Balsillie from taking over the franchise and moving it.

"All sports is at risk if you can't determine who can be a partner and where your franchises are located," Bettman says, "because those are the two most important decisions that any sports league has to make."

While Bettman is master of the stock answers that usually match, word for word, what he said months earlier, he can at times become animated and spontaneous, even angry. Accuse the league of duplicity on any issue - such as not caring enough to act properly on head shots - or accuse him of sabotaging the potential deals with Balsillie for personal reasons, and he leaps to his own and the league's defence.

"Don't challenge my integrity," he says, voice rising. "This is what we do. This is what I do and [deputy commissioner]Bill Daly does and [league disciplinarian]Colin Campbell does. It is what we do and we do it with passion. You can't function if you blow with the wind.

"Why would you do anything but the right thing, or at least what you believe to be the right thing?"

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