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Critics mixed on his performance
Jack Todd, CanWest News Service
Published: Thursday, February 01, 2007

MONTREAL - The National Hockey League reaches a sad anniversary today -- and no, it isn't the one-week anniversary of the unveiling of the sleek new Reebok jersey.

No, that merchandising debacle is barely ripe compared with the career of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who marks his 15th year on the job today.

The anniversary would have escaped me entirely if not for a column on Yahoo! Sports by Dan Wetzel, who carves Bettman like a Thanksgiving turkey

Now compared with New York Post columnist Larry Brooks (who hates Bettman with the kind of loathing I reserve for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Dr. Phil), Wetzel is practically an in-house publicist for the NHL.

But he writes with tongue only slightly in cheek when he suggests that planting Bettman on the NHL was a conspiracy orchestrated by Bettman's former boss and mentor, NBA mastermind David Stern.

With Mark Messier in New York, Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles and the Rangers about to win their first Stanley Cup in a couple of centuries and strengthen the game in the New York market, Wetzel suggests, Stern decided to destroy the NHL from within.

"All of a sudden, hockey was challenging, if not beating, the NBA in a number of major U.S. markets -- including New York. It's almost impossible to imagine now, but it happened.

"As the conspiracy theory goes, Stern sensed the potential trouble in 1993 while the NHL was in search of a new commissioner.

So he looked around his own office for someone so incompetent that if they got the job, the NHL would be marginalized by their mismanagement and never again be a threat to the NBA.

"Naturally, Stern recommended one of his assistants, Gary Bettman, for the job.

"True story or not, it worked."



When you look back at all the body blows the NHL has taken during Bettman's reign, it's tempting to buy Wetzel's argument: sly Stern sitting in his office, looking at the upstart NHL gaining ground.

Bettman comes bumbling in, the penny drops, the NHL is brought to its knees.

Of course Wetzel, being something of a young 'un, isn't as immersed as we are in the sad, inglorious history of NHL commissioners.

There was Clarence Campbell, co-founder of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec along with his favourite victim, Maurice Richard.

Then there was John Ziegler, who could usually be found in London (England, not Ontario) when the NHL was in a crisis.

Oh, yes -- and before Bettman we had Gil Stein, who tried to engineer his own election to the Hall of Fame when he was about three weeks into the job, which is why they never removed the "acting" from his title.

So compared with the wreckage that went before, Bettman is practically Pete Rozelle. He has ruled with an iron hand, he had definite ideas and a definite direction and no one can say that he hasn't been busy commishing all along -- although the league would arguably be better off if it had operated without a commissioner all these years.

Bettman's tenure has been a mixed bag at best: on the plus side of the ledger are the entry of NHL pros into the Olympic Games, the crackdown on clutching and grabbing, the long overdue move to a shootout to decide games that are tied after five minutes of overtime and, above all, the much touted Collective Bargaining Agreement under which the league now operates.

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