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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to reporters after the NHL board of governors meeting in Montreal, Wednesday June 24, 2009. The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes.

Graham Hughes

If Air Canada is serious about pulling its sponsorship from the NHL it will soon find out Gary Bettman doesn't mind playing rough himself.

While I'm a little curious as to why a serious threat cutting off many millions in sponsorship money because of concern about bad publicity from the NHL's handling of the head-shot issue was made by the airline's marketing guy rather than the chief executive officer, there is no reason to dismiss it. But those who trifle with the NHL commissioner or under estimate him do so at their peril.

Bettman will have no hesitation in striking back quickly and hard.

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A couple of commentators pointed out this morning, including my rather sharp pal Elliotte Friedman over at the CBC, that Air Canada is the carrier for 11 NHL teams, including all six Canadian teams. Friedman was told this brings in a tidy $20-million a year for the airline, which is no stranger to financial woes. It's also the official airline for the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Raptors.

Also, the airline gets its name on the arena of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors at the bargain rate of $1.5-million per year until 2019. By comparison, Philips Electronics pays the owners of the Atlanta Thrashers and Atlanta Hawks $9.3-million (U.S.) per year until 2019 for an arena that sees far fewer paying customers.

Something tells me Air Canada could soon find out it is the ex-airline carrier and former naming rights-holder in Toronto by tomorrow or as soon as the contracts allow if it persists in rattling the NHL's cage. The airline could probably forget about flying the Leafs' basketball cousins, the Raptors, about as well.

How long do you think it would take Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to find another company willing to put its name on what is now the Air Canada Centre, concussions and all?

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