Oct 7, 2011; Dallas, TX, USA; Chicago Blackhawks rookie left wing Brandon Saad (43) skates in his first NHL game against the Dallas Stars during their game at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeated the Blackhawks 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been good for hockey

I can understand why longtime NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is often demonized by hockey fans across North America.

Take the partisan angst traditionally leveled upon CEOs of major sports leagues and multiply it by the underdog tenacity that defines most puck followers and you have an idea why casual observers could be excused for thinking “Sucks” is Bettman’s true surname.

In the aftermath of a third extended lockout in less than 20 years, Bettman’s popularity is likely at an all-time low, which is truly saying something. Even with the incredibly shrewd Donald Fehr as a labor opponent, the commissioner received little empathy for his daunting responsibility to represent the interests of 29 owners with widely disparate ideas.

Bettman is paid exceedingly well for doing his job, so he clearly deserves no pity. In addition, cancelling games should always be a last resort, but the NHL (along with the NFL and NBA) have looked to it as a primary strategy to increase leverage against players.

January 9, 2013; New York, NY, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the National Hockey League lockout during a press conference at the Westin New York in Times Square. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the labor issues, I still think Bettman should be celebrated once his tenure as the NHL’s first commissioner is over. He has done more good than bad for the sport of hockey and its prospects for growth.

I sense the room may be clearing out soon, but I’ll still plead my case. The No. 1 complaint I hear about Bettman (that isn’t coming from sheep bleating someone else’s opinion) is that he’s taken franchises out of where they belong and put them in places they don’t.

The Phoenix Coyotes are usually the first example used in this case, never mind that the team was drawing well in the years immediately following the franchise’s relocation from Winnipeg. Some lean years on the ice in the mid-2000s and a questionable move from downtown Phoenix to the exurb of Glendale have weakened what once was a thriving brand.

But the Coyotes’ ongoing existential saga isn’t the point here. No matter how it turns out, I will always defend the placement of an NHL team in the desert, as will I stand behind teams in south Florida, North Carolina, southern California, San Jose, Dallas, Tampa and even the ill-fated Atlanta experiment.

All of those excursions into “non-traditional” hockey territory are justified, as long as you keep the long view in mind. For me, hockey’s biggest challenge in winning American hearts and minds is embedding itself into this country’s sporting culture.

To do that, the game has to expose itself to people, ideally youngsters, as a worthwhile and fun activity. If you’re playing the game, whether on ice or asphalt, you’re thinking about the game.

Hockey’s best and most consistent sales pitch has been and will be the NHL. Less than a generation after Bettman’s much-maligned Sun Belt expansion, we are seeing promising results at the grassroots level. The 2013 United States’ World Junior Championship team – the one that just won gold for the second time in four years – featured players from California (gold medal game hero Rocco Grimaldi), Florida (Flyers’ draft pick Shayne Gostisbehere) and Texas (top 2013 NHL Draft hopeful Seth Jones).

All three of those guys and countless Sun Belt prospects like them grew up watching the NHL in their home markets. I’d be willing to wager a large sum that these athletes would be playing another sport if big-league hockey didn’t branch out into warmer climates.

From my experience working in the United States Hockey League, America’s top developmental league for NCAA and NHL draft picks, I’ve personally witnessed that the junior-age talent pool is increasingly full of players from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As I mentioned on this week’s Three Rivers, One Show podcast, hockey is a young sport in America when compared to baseball, football and even basketball. Especially in areas without naturally-occurring snow, it takes time to germinate. Heck, even in Pittsburgh, where hockey fever has reached pandemic proportions, it’s only recently that the region has begun seducing its fair share of elite local athletes.

It’s tremendous that Pittsburgh-area natives J.T. Miller, Vince Trocheck, John Gibson, Brandon Saad and Riley Barber have all played for the world Under-20 title in the past two years, but credit is due to the Penguins’ success for giving hockey unprecedented relevance in the Tri-State Area.

As you’ll remember, Bettman stood behind the Penguins all the way as they tirelessly attempted to secure the funding to a new arena that ensured NHL hockey’s survival in Pittsburgh. The commish’s steadfast support is a primary reason why the Penguins may one day challenge the Steelers in regional popularity.

It seems that most anti-Bettman tirades come from Canadian and American cities where hockey has been played for a century or more. With a few exceptions, these arguments come off as bitter people who refuse to share a great game. I simply can’t relate to that, as I have ambitions for the sport beyond success in Toronto, Montreal, Detroit, et al.

It’s for that reason that I appreciate Bettman’s initiatives in spreading the hockey gospel. The sport can only get better when more people play, and according to USA Hockey registration numbers, the NHL has largely accomplished that in the past two decades.

So while its TV ratings may look sluggish compared to other sports and some vocal critics will deride the sport for overextending itself, know that hockey is healthier now than it was in 1992. Gary Bettman’s inclusive vision for the NHL has a lot to do with that.

Tags: Gary Bettman NHL Pittsburgh Penguins USA Hockey

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