Tim­ing wrong for in­duc­tion

With po­ten­tial labour strife on the hori­zon, Hall vot­ers should have de­ferred on in­duct­ing Bettman

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - SPORTS - STEVE SIMMONS ssim­mons@post­media.com

Bobby Orr be­lieves an­other Na­tional Hockey League lock­out is com­ing in 2020.

And, if Orr is cor­rect, Mon­day’s en­shrine­ment of Gary Bettman in the builders cat­e­gory of the Hockey Hall of Fame will seem more lu­di­crous then than it does right now.

The tim­ing for Bettman and the Hall just doesn’t seem right. Maybe some day it might be. You can make a strong case for Bettman as a Hall of Famer and you can make al­most as strong a case that the 18-mem­ber vot­ing com­mit­tee of the Hall should have de­layed its vot­ing on Bettman, wait­ing un­til his ca­reer was over or close to end­ing.

It’s 25 years for Bettman as com­mis­sioner of the NHL and he re­mains in his prime. He’s a 50-goal scorer as a com­mis­sioner, the most sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial fig­ure in the his­tory of hockey, but he’s still scor­ing big-time. He’s still a ma­jor player in the game. And he still be­lies the ti­tle of his job. He is called com­mis­sioner, but re­ally he has never been that. He is the CEO of the NHL, work­ing with the own­ers and for the own­ers. He doesn’t over­see the game as much as he over­sees the busi­ness of the game. And he doesn’t of­ten act for play­ers or fans, al­ways lean­ing in the di­rec­tion of own­er­ship. And that’s where and why the Hall of Fame stuff gets com­pli­cated.

Bettman has been a bril­liant leader for the NHL. There is no deny­ing that. The league was rel­a­tively small in ma­jor league sport­ing busi­ness when he left the NBA to be­come the NHL’s first com­mis­sioner. The growth of the NHL un­der his lead­er­ship has been gi­gan­tic: In terms of rev­enue, the busi­ness has grown al­most 10-fold. Fran­chise val­ues have gone through the roof. Ex­pan­sion fees bor­der on the im­pos­si­ble, Ve­gas pay­ing US$500 mil­lion for its team, Seat­tle said to be pay­ing US$650 mil­lion for its ex­pan­sion fran­chise. That in a league in which the Florida Pan­thers or Ari­zona Coy­otes could be sold for maybe half that price. Player salaries, ex­cept for star play­ers ham­pered by the salary cap, have grown enor­mously.

On the ice, on tele­vi­sion and in de­vel­op­ment and in dig­i­tal growth, hockey has never been big­ger or bet­ter in Amer­ica, where it for­ever needs to be big­ger and bet­ter. So much of that goes back to Bettman, that’s the Hall of Fame ar­gu­ment. That’s im­pos­si­ble to ar­gue against. That’s the teeter-tot­ter of his time in of­fice: He has been the yeah-but com­mis­sioner. For all that he has done for the busi­ness needs to be bal­anced against all he hasn’t done for fans and the game.

So, Bettman is an all-time great builder, a gi­ant re­ally, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing some of the weak choices in that cat­e­gory over the years from Harold Bal­lard to Jeremy Ja­cobs, but that’s only part of his story.

He has, as com­mis­sioner, over­seen three lock­outs in the NHL. One for a full sea­son. Two for near half sea­sons. That re­mains dis­grace­ful. And Orr thinks a fourth one is com­ing.

Yes, some will ar­gue that each time the NHL shut down, it came back stronger a league. But that’s more a trib­ute to a loyal and ra­bid fan base than it is to any­thing Bettman and com­pany have done to re­brand the league.

If a fourth lock­out is com­ing — and who knows whether it is or how long it might last — ask your­self this: Should a com­mis­sioner who over­sees four lock­outs in his ca­reer, in any sport, in any league, be con­sid­ered for a Hall of Fame?

That’s the prob­lem with to­day. We don’t know if a lock­out is com­ing. We don’t how the Bettman story ends in the NHL. Cau­tion should have been on the minds of the vot­ers. There are just as many rea­sons to keep him out as there are to let him in. So why not wait un­til you know how the story ends?

Can you imag­ine tak­ing your son or daugh­ter to the Hall of Fame in 2020, see­ing the Bettman dis­play, and ex­plain­ing to your kids that he’s the rea­son the NHL isn’t play­ing right now.

And if you want, you can ex­plain that he was the rea­son, or the leader — via his own­ers — that there was no NHL par­tic­i­pa­tion in PyeongChang for the Olympics last Fe­bru­ary. Bettman was the first to take the NHL to the Olympics and the first to shut them down.

He was party to the great­est Olympic hockey tour­na­ments ever played and party also to just about the worst one ever played.

Busi­ness on one side on the scale, his ab­so­lute strength. The game on the other side of the scale, let­ting fans down with lock­outs, let­ting them down with Olympics, let­ting them down with the for­ever grow­ing cost of at­tend­ing games.

Be­ing the cen­tral fig­ure in three lock­outs should be warn­ing enough to won­der about Hall of Fame in­clu­sion. But if there’s a fourth lock­out, that tips the scale heav­ily against Bettman. By then, it won’t mat­ter to most of us that he has his place in the Hall of Fame. We’ll just want hockey, like we al­ways do.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

NHL com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman will be in­ducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Mon­day.

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