Starkey: A kind thought for Bettman (really)
By Joe Starkey
Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 10:58 p.m.
This might seem like an odd time to bring up Gary Bettman, for a couple of reasons:
1. Referencing the face of the NHL lockout amidst a region-wide hockey celebration could be considered a serious buzzkill.
2. Nobody likes him.
The second point probably is exaggerated. I'm sure somebody likes Bettman. And which sports commissioner is popular these days, anyway? Roger Goodell?
Let's stick with point No. 1, and let me tell you that our town's post-lockout hockey jamboree is precisely why I'm thinking of Bettman.
See, there's a very good chance that without him it wouldn't be happening.
None of this would be.
No 255-game sellout streak.
No half-million TV viewers for the season opener.
No waiting list for season tickets.
No packed house for an intra-squad scrimmage.
No happy faces in the biting cold, the ones I witnessed on my walk to Consol Energy Center on Wednesday night.
No Consol Energy Center.
No record crowd of 18,641.
No ear-splitting roars for Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby during pregame introductions.
No Malkin or Crosby, at least not in Pittsburgh.
So go ahead and rant over the latest lockout. That's your right. Bash Bettman all you like. He deserves much of it.
Tell me his time has passed and that somebody with a broader vision belongs in the commissioner's chair. I won't argue strenuously. Even point out that the Penguins themselves weren't thrilled with aspects of Bettman's lockout approach.
All fair game. But none of it comes close to trumping the fact that Bettman was a critical factor in preserving the sport's existence here.
I can't stress that enough: IF NOT FOR GARY BETTMAN, THE PENGUINS MIGHT NOT EXIST.
How mad can you be at the guy who stole your television if he previously saved your life?
Crosby was on the opposite bench during the lockout, but he knows Bettman had a major hand in preserving the Penguins' existence.
“Looking back, I don't know every single detail, but at some point that was partly his decision,” Crosby said. “And I think people all love hockey here and should appreciate that, definitely.”
If you rip Bettman for presiding over three lockouts, at least include the sort-of-important detail that lockout No. 2 resulted in a revamped economic structure that allowed the Penguins to compete.
As team president and CEO David Morehouse put it, “The last CBA (in 2006), which established the cap, combined with the new arena, these are the things that are most important in this market in allowing us to compete with the bigger markets.”
There's that and the fact Bettman's most recent adversary was Donald Fehr, who gave you baseball's current economic system.
How's that working out?
Here's another history lesson, aimed primarily at the growing young-person demographic within the Penguins' fan base: Coming out of the lockout in 2006, the Penguins were all but sold to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, whom many feared would move the team to Hamilton, Ontario, if Isle of Capri did not win the slots license.
Bettman read the play and made certain Balsillie couldn't follow through on any such plan. Balsillie resented the commissioner's meddling and dropped his bid.
Later, with the arena deal in peril and the Penguins looking at Kansas City and Las Vegas, Bettman brokered the final round of negotiations between the Penguins and Gov. Ed Rendell at the Cherry Hill, N.J., Crown Plaza.
As recounted in Trib reporter Andy Conte's book “Breakaway,” Rendell asked Bettman to take a seat in the middle of the table, presumably as a neutral observer. Instead, Bettman said, “I'm going to sit with my friends Ron and Mario.”
Like him or not, Bettman has always been a friend to Pittsburgh. He is booed in every other NHL arena. He merits cheers here.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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