By STEPHEN BRUNT
Friday, March 11, 2011
Hockey is under attack. And pressure is building on the NHL to take action. The long-term impact of concussions is becoming clearer even as hockey stars from Sidney Crosby to Max Pacioretty keep dropping to the ice, casting serious doubt on the integrity of Canada's game. Sponsors, such as Air Canada, are blowing the whistle. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is 'very concerned' and believes 'the league's got to take a very serious look at that for its own sake.' Players, owners and others have joined the call for stiffer penalties and safer hockey. How long will NHL commissioner Gary Bettman ignore the demand for change?
A question arises naturally as one of the worst weeks in National Hockey League history draws to a close.
So just who is in charge here?
The referee, who decided in the moment that Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty was sufficiently serious and sufficiently against the rules to assess him a minor, major and game misconduct?
The league's senior executive vice-president, usually the judge, jury and executioner when it comes to the NHL's disciplinary process, who in this instance had to recuse himself because his kid plays for the offending team, and who in a leaked series of e-mails was previously revealed to be a stereotypical hockey dad?
Or his second-in-command, thrust into the breech, who chatted with Mr. Chara by phone Wednesday, and then ruled that the aforementioned illegal hit, which caused profound damage to Mr. Pacioretty's neck and brain, was worthy of no supplementary discipline at all?
Or how about the commissioner, whose contract has quietly been extended another five years?
People familiar with the workings of the NHL are used to this kind of gong show, especially the hockey-obsessed populace of this country, who at this stage are way beyond eye-rolling.
But in moments like these it is especially worth stepping back and looking at the NHL afresh.
There's only one conclusion to be drawn: this is no way to run a sport, no way to run a business, and the failing, in all of its permutations, is one of leadership.
There is a vacuum here, a lack of direction that no one outside of the game can right.
There's no point in calling in the police and the courts to deal with the Chara hit, and if a legal remedy is pursued, history tells us that route will almost certainly lead to a dead end.
Same goes for the veiled threats from Parliament Hill, the expressions of concern from the Prime Minister's Office: just how would one legislate away what happened on Tuesday night?
At least the shot across the bow from Air Canada is something novel - hard to remember one of the league's sponsors going public with its discomfort before. But the suspicion is that it was the emotional, Montreal-based response of a Montreal-based company, so don't hold your breath waiting for it to strip its name off the rink in Toronto.
Whatever is being said on the outside, credibility comes from within, and only from within. Although he is employee, not emperor, this must be Gary Bettman's time.
Sure, he's got himself into a pickle trying to make the corpse of the Phoenix Coyotes appear lifelike, juggling all kinds of conflicting interests and telling all kinds of little white lies.
Sure, the league's murky disciplinary process is tied up in knots by precedent, and no one in the game will ever be comfortable stating what seems unequivocally true: that the NHL, in part, is in the violence business, which means it is willing to accept significant risks to the health of its players.
But the role of a commissioner is also different from that of CEO, whose only concern is protecting the interests of the shareholders.
Professional sport is in many ways a faith-based entertainment business. The fans, who buy in not just for a couple of hours of distraction, but often for a lifetime, need to think of the game as distinct from the commercial aspects of the game. There is something pure and essential there, to be respected, to be protected.
A commissioner must pay at least lip service to principle. None of David Stern, Roger Goodell or Bud Selig (in descending order of confidence inspiration) are perfect, and all of them are beholden to their masters, the owners. But all have had moments when they understood they had to stand up and speak for their games.
Mr. Bettman can do that now, on the issue of Phoenix and Winnipeg, on the issue of head shots and discipline. For all the baggage, all the tawdry history, he's the only person with the power to say that what came before was wrong, and what happens from here on must be right.
Instead, what we have heard from him so far is impotent whining about the Goldwater Institute, the familiar knee-jerk defence of the Chara hit, and a veiled threat to the folks at Air Canada, suggesting that the league could always take its charter business elsewhere.
Petulance in the face of criticism and pressure: that's the measure of the man.
If Gary Bettman can't rise above it, even in these extraordinary times, then what is a commissioner for?
BY THE NUMBERS
Weight: 255 lbs
NHL debut: 1997-98
Career games: 913
Career points: 395
Weight: 195 lbs
NHL debut: 2008-09
Career games: 123
Career points: 49