VANCOUVER - Given the National Hockey League's employment of heavyweight spin-doctors and image consultants and league vice-president Bill Daly's sudden rise in profile as unofficial spokesman during the lockout, commissioner Gary Bettman probably has a pretty good idea that he is largely reviled.
And I have a pretty good idea he's OK with that.
But far thinner-skinned are NHL owners, who have been using Bettman as their expensive if effective human shield to absorb the missiles fired by players and some journalists, as well as from the many fans in places where hockey matters.
The owners, most of them powerful businessmen who are among the elite in their communities, have escaped meaningful criticism despite “unanimously” pushing Bettman to wring another big paycut from players at the risk of losing a full schedule and indefinitely damaging a league that would have done about $3.5 billion in business this season.
But Ryan Suter's criticism of Craig Leipold, the Minnesota Wild owner who signed the defenceman to a $98-million-US contract in July and now wants at least 12 per cent of it back, breached the Bettman Defence and delivered the most direct and damaging blow so far against the league.
“If you can't afford to (sign contracts) then you shouldn't do it," Suter told ESPN on Friday. "(Leipold) signed us to contracts. At the time he said everything was fine. Yeah, it's disappointing. A couple months before, everything is fine, and now they want to take money out of our contracts that we already signed.”
Suter also said: “It's disappointing that the owners, they sign all these guys and some guys were signed within the last week before the CBA was up. Now, they're trying to go back on their word. It's frustrating, disappointing. It doesn't seem like that's the way you operate a relationship or business."
Perfectly built for his task, Bettman is publicly impervious to criticism. Owners, with civic standing and other businesses in play, typically are not. They are far more connected to their communities and more vulnerable if players personally take issue with their stance.
It will be fascinating to see if other players now take the fight to the club level, bypassing Bettman and criticizing their owners by name. It is the owners, after all, who pay Bettman and give him orders – albeit in a rigged system that requires a three-quarter majority to overrule/overthrow the commissioner.
Leipold, Boston Bruins' owner Jeremy Jacobs and Washington Capitals' owner Ted Leonsis were part of the Bettman negotiating team that stormed out of the last meeting with players after considering NHLPA proposals for only a few minutes.
Railing against Bettman has done players no good. He cares what they think as much as he cares what fans think. So, will we hear from newly-signed Bruin players Milan Lucic or Brad Marchand about Jacobs? Will Capitals' captain Alex Ovechkin, whose salary-cap hit is the highest in the NHL, speak out against Leonsis?
The players have watched the owners flush the first two months of the season. They're empowered, even if the NHL won't bargain with them without strings attached, to do something about it.
WHITECAPS CREST: After coach Martin Rennie had the backbone to bench struggling marquee players Barry Robson and Kenny Miller, the Vancouver Whitecaps' scoreless road draw Saturday against a strong Real Salt Lake squad was heartening for a team facing a daunting Major League Soccer playoff debut Thursday against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
John Thorrington, renowned for his professionalism and popular with teammates, replaced Robson in midfield in the starting lineup, while Miller and Brazilian Camilo gave way up front to speedy Jamaicans Darren Mattocks and Dane Richards. Although the Whitecaps didn't score – Mattocks may have been microscopically offside on his disallowed second-half goal – they played with a cohesiveness and commitment lacking in last Sunday's desultory 1-0 home loss to the Portland Timbers.
To their credit, Miller and Robson played well after coming on as substitutes late in the second half. But it's hard to imagine Rennie, who was disappointed with the veteran leadership against Portland, going back to his previous lineup after so encouraging a performance on Saturday.
If Robson and Miller do start on the substitutes' bench in Los Angeles, it raises obvious questions about their future with a club that altered its chemistry, lineup and back account to accommodate them.
And given that this year's “designated players” followed last year's marquee signings of erratic Eric Hassli and the utterly forgettable Mustapha Jarju, it makes you wonder if the European scout recommending these players to the Whitecaps is the same one who sold the Vancouver Canucks on Libor Polasek.
ONLY THE HEATER WORKED: It actually could have been a lot worse for the B.C. Lions in Calgary; their sideline heater didn't quite kill Stampeder receiver Maurice Price when he slid into it like a bratwurst during the Lions' 41-21 loss Friday.
That incident, and a lot of others, were alarming on a night that saw the Lions get the ball and go: penalty, short pass, penalty, fumble for Calgary touchdown. Then things got worse.
The best part for B.C., apart from the nominal show of character by scoring three straight touchdowns after falling behind 34-0, is that Travis Lulay didn't play. That meant he wasn't hit once during the Stampeders' eight quarterback sacks.
The performance meant nothing in the standings but did some serious statistical harm to the Lions, whose points-per-game allowed jumped to 20.5 from 19.2 after B.C. had been on pace to surrender its fewest points since 1985. And the eight sacks were nearly half the 19 the Lions had allowed in the first 16 games.
Those sacks, like the result, illustrated how important Lulay is to the Lions. Although veteran centre Angus Reid was rested and missed, Lulay's decisiveness and elusiveness are as important to the low sack total as the offensive line.
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