VANCOUVER - When it comes to items placed in the “Or Not” file by editors of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, here is the No. 1 rejected submission: “There is a National Hockey League city in Canada where Gary Bettman can get a standing ovation any time he wants one.”
Crazy, right? Impossible.
What self-respecting constituency in a hockey-mad nation would rise from its collective seat to applaud the NHL commissioner who has presided over three lockouts in the last 18 years, wiping out the equivalent of nearly two full seasons?
What assembly of hockey fans -- whose three dozen part-owners fought arm-in-arm with the soulless fat cats of Boston and Philadelphia and Toronto in 2004-05 to get a $39 million salary cap, only to see it balloon to $64 million within seven years -- would salute the man who called that 2005 CBA a victory for the little guy?
Believe it or not.
Oh, Winnipeg got all warm and fuzzy for about five minutes, the night the Jets returned to the NHL in October of 2011 and, in a blood-rushing-to-the-head moment of giddiness, gave Bettman a nice hand for pushing along the franchise’s relocation from Atlanta. But Winnipeggers will have gotten over it by now.
Montrealers wouldn’t do it. They still haven’t forgiven the NHL for the time Clarence Campbell suspended The Rocket, let alone Zdeno Chara’s unpunished attempted beheading of Max Pacioretty. Torontonians last cheered anything in 2003 when Ol’ 93, Doug Gilmour, was re-acquired by the Leafs. Alas, he skated onto the ice and tore his ACL on his second shift in an innocent collision with Calgary’s Dave Lowry, and that was it for Killer and, pretty much, excitement at Air Canada Centre.
Ottawans are skeptical of all slippery politicians, from decades of close proximity to them, so that’s out. Vancouverites showed Bettman their sentiments when they rained garbage down on him as he was attempting to present the 2011 Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins.
And Calgarians are on the fence -- until the province of Alberta coughs up some money for the Edmonton arena project, they won’t know whether they’ll be getting theirs -- so they are withholding their applause.
But Edmontonians (or Edmonites, as the boxing impresario Don King once called them) ... oh, there are no height restrictions on the object of their gratitude. The Little Prince (careful with the spelling) is their man.
And you know what? He probably should be.
It’s not going to figure in a legacy that will be overshadowed by ill-advised expansion markets and lockouts -- and there may always be the suspicion that Bettman put his old NBA crony, Houston Rockets’ Les Alexander, up to bidding on the Oilers (a charade, as it turned out) when Peter Pocklington was trying to put pressure on the city. But on balance, taking the good with the bad, Bettman has been a godsend to the Alberta capital.
He has parachuted in several times to put out fires and keep talks going -- from the 1990s when he was facilitating the transfer of the Oilers from Pocklington to the Edmonton Investors Group (ovation) ... to the team’s short-lived on-ice renaissance following the 2005 lockout, when the CBA’s New Deal led to the Oilers’ acquisitions of Chris Pronger and Mike Peca and, out of nowhere, a trip to the Stanley Cup final (two ovations) ... to last Friday, when he engineered the closing of the hole in the ozone layer, the completion of an environmentally friendly pipeline from the Alberta Oil Sands directly to George W. Bush’s ranch in Texas and, in his spare time, brokered peace in the Middle East.
OK, we made that last one up.
He did, however, fly in Friday and get Oiler owner Daryl Katz and Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel and the city manager together, give them all noogies, and tell them to smarten up and make a deal on construction of a new downtown arena that would benefit both sides.
And mostly, to quit kidding themselves that further delaying the project would somehow save one party or the other a few bucks.
And lo and behold, city council Wednesday voted 10-3 to approve the same basic deal that was proposed, and okayed, 15 months ago, before the Katz group tried the old fast shuffle, leading council to withdraw from the project.
This is not to say everyone left Wednesday’s meeting happy.
Heck, some were unhappy when they got there. Oiler players Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nick Schultz, Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff were in attendance, leading the mayor to tell them it must be their punishment for giving up six goals in the first period of a 6-3 loss to San Jose the night before.
In fact, everyone leaves a little bit unhappy, and those citizens who oppose the city’s $219 million contribution to the now $601 million project will be furious at the thought of tax hikes to come.
But hockey fans are delighted, because shovels may now go into the ground, probably in August, with completion of a project that hopes to revitalize a struggling downtown core scheduled for 2016. By then, only Madison Square Garden will be older than Rexall Place, among NHL buildings.
The former Edmonton Coliseum, operated by the Northlands exhibition association that sponsors Klondike Days, or whatever it’s called this week, and livestock shows and the Canadian Finals Rodeo, will be 42 years old, and out to pasture.
And when the new building opens, we’re guessing Gary Bettman will take time out of his busy schedule to show up for those rarest of occurrences: the royal wave, followed by the standing O.
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