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Job security emboldens already bold-faced Bettman

by | CBSSports.com Columnist

Gary Bettman's new contract as NHL commissioner is actually five months old and five years long -- which is pretty much what this week must seem like to him.

The Zdeno Chara hit and the subsequent level of action have become a multinational thing. The owner of the Montreal Canadiens has essentially called the league out on the lack of sanctions to Chara. Air Canada, one of the NHL's major sponsors, is complaining loudly about the number of head shots to and by players. Arizona politics are swamping the Phoenix Coyotes and showing that Bettman's commitment to the market was either misplaced or insufficient.

And Bettman is in standard Bettmanian mode -- jaw out and spoiling for as many fights as he can manage.

Bettman didn't flinch when major sponsor Air Canada made demands. (US Presswire)  
Bettman didn't flinch when major sponsor Air Canada made demands. (US Presswire)  
That's the beauty of Gary Bettman, though -- when in doubt, he will lead with an elbow and if need be, he will use a stanchion.

There have been any number of moments where Bettman's leadership has been questioned/mocked/dismissed, because he does have this way of confronting a position, finding the least defensible place to make his stand. But he never loses his core support, and he never loses his chestiness.

Bettman is not by nature a diplomat, and he showed his spiny side yet again this week, especially in the Chara hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty. The league decided that Chara's punishment, ejection, was sufficient and wasn't hearing any other viewpoints on the subject. This after Sidney Crosby lost his season as the league's biggest name to a persistent concussion.

And his work in Phoenix, basically blaming the citizens watchdog group for undermining his plan to find a new owner for the Coyotes, has been only slightly more conciliatory than that of a Rottweiler with missed-meal cramps.

But it might be his dismissal of Air Canada that showed him at his most Bettmanic.

After the airline threatened to withdraw its sponsorship, which includes being the official air carrier for the six Canadian teams and five American ones, if steps were not taken to reduce violent hits to the head, Bettman did what most commissioners would consider only as a last resort.

"Air Canada is a great brand as is the National Hockey League, and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that's their prerogative. It is the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don't think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service."

Well, that's elegant. He turned "the league isn't doing enough about head shots" into "Air Canada's not keeping up with the in-flight peanut demand." He made the league's problem into the airline's problem, and if he wasn't seen shooting off a middle finger, it's only because you can only do so much with a statement.

This is why Bettman is so Bettman. He not only doesn't duck a fight, he likes them. He likes getting in front of the other guy's goal, a la Tomas Holmstrom, and he likes the odd sluefoot, as he really likes to play through the whistle.

In the past, a cock-up like Phoenix would cause demands for his resignation, or some sign of shame. In the past, the Chara thing would make him look silly and ineffectual and blind to the realities of a game that takes safety too blithely.

But he just got five more years, and even if he didn't get a raise, it's still another $35 million-plus deal. The people whom he needs to like him like him, and as long as they have his back, he's going to continue Bettman-ing.

It's not even about public perception for him anymore. He has had the job long enough to know what works for him and what doesn't, and paying attention to outward cries of ... well, anything, really, doesn't work for him.

His new strength, he has decided, is to be the hardest of hardnoses, to conciliate on nothing, to tell anyone who needs to hear the lesson to go pound salt for another five years.

A good lesson, he would like to think, when the NHL's next collective bargaining cycle begins. The speak-loudly-and-keep-your-stick-high style he has plainly embraced indicates a man who commissions with "Bring it on" monogrammed on his shirts, and he's ready for whatever Don Fehr, or even any rogue owner, has to bring.

Normally, this would seem self-defeating, but the new deal has given Bettman all the courage he thinks he needs. Diplomacy? Tact? Negotiating deftness? That stuff's for sissies.

Well, OK, maybe sissies is a strong word. It's for someone who didn't just get five more years on the company arm. Gary Bettman is fearless again, and that means that he's likely to be kind of a killjoy.


Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.


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