Why it’s time to reevaluate Gary Bettman’s legacy

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joins George Stroumboulopoulos to discuss all things hockey, including John Scott’s rise to stardom, NHL expansion plans and much more.

Gary Bettman has just had his tied All-Star Game moment, but he needn’t worry: Bud Selig survived seeing the 2002 All-Star Game tied 7-7 when the teams ran out of players, and by the time his tenure as Major League Baseball commissioner was done, everybody was talking about how his legacy was stronger than anybody thought it would be.

Bettman, the NHL commissioner, will get over the embarrassment that hockey fans and John Scott made of the All-Star Game. And the guess here is that by the time that seven-year contract extension is over, like Selig the rough edges will be smoothed over. And like Selig, Bettman has Donald Fehr to thank for some of it.

It’s no surprise that the sport with the messiest labour relations is the NFL — its players association is a not-very-bright lapdog of a not-very-bright commissioner, Roger Goodell. The NBA Players Association has taken steps in the proper direction, but in reality its player politics are dominated by a powerful core led by LeBron James. Football players are easy to replace and have a relatively short shelf life anyhow. Try replacing James or Steph Curry.

Baseball has had the smoothest recent history of labour relations, partly because the game is rolling in money and because Selig was smart enough to recognize the strong personal relationship his chief labour negotiator, current commissioner Rob Manfred, had with then-Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Fehr and his successor, the late Michael Weiner. Plus, owners and players found common cause when dragged in front of congressional hearings to answer for the game’s steroid scandal.

The sense here is that even though there are suggestions that Mathieu Schneider is being positioned to replace Fehr atop the NHL Players' Association, having a strong union partner has in fact brought out the best in Bettman. He was stared down in the last lockout, for the most part -- the players' resolve withstanding the usual off-and-on-the-record whispers from the usual Fifth Column of former players or the legions of pro-ownership media. Out of the realization that he is no longer the smartest guy in the room, Bettman has overseen a formal partnership with the NHLPA that will lead to a legitimate World Cup of Hockey, and he and the players association can now see common cause in dealing with concussions and their legal ramifications. Indeed, that issue could be for hockey what the steroid scandal was for baseball.

There was a time when the thought of seven more years of Bettman would send Canadian hockey fans into the streets with pitchforks. Now, it is nothing but a logical decision, even for those of us who have never carried water for him. Bettman should send Fehr a thank you card, or at least give him a call.

OPTIMUS CONTRACT

It’s apparent by now that James Reimer should be a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs' longer-term future.

After all, the same philosophy that stated this season was about giving Mike Babcock a baseline assessment of his team must surely allow for a re-thinking of a player's value. And Reimer’s performance this season, his final before unrestricted free agency, should at least open the possibility of him re-upping with the organization.

With the trade deadline a month away, Reimer has emerged as the Leafs' version of Dioner Navarro, the switch-hitting catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays who often found himself in the middle of trade rumours last off-season yet spent the entire year with the team because he was, frankly, of more value to them than what they’d get on the trade market. (Navarro signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox this winter.) Most contending teams likely view Reimer as a backup going into the trade deadline -- and what’s that worth on the market? Getting rid of Reimer would only add another item to an already-crowded to-do list this summer, especially if the Leafs don’t believe in Jonathan Bernier. It’s possible that Reimer could be dealt and then re-sign with the organization, but that seems like an unnecessary risk.

Reimer is hardly a franchise goaltender. He gets hurt, but he knows his way around the Leafs dressing room and is up to the task of playing goal in this unique marketplace. Think back to that playoff meltdown against the Boston Bruins: while not entirely his fault, there are goalies who would have collapsed. Not Reimer. The ride is going to be rough for this Maple Leafs team in the next few seasons. Whatever they hold for this team there ought to be a place for Reimer, who has been tested and found up to the task of playing in this city.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

  • So I guess we can add John Terry’s name to the list of players who will slip into their dotage in Major League Soccer. Terry, the long-time Chelsea skipper, told reporters after Sunday’s 5-1 FA Cup win over M.K. Dons that the team would not be offering him a contract at the end of the season. He reiterated that he would not play for another Premiership team and mused about finishing his career in the MLS as recently as last season. New York or Los Angeles would be the most likely destinations -- can’t see Terry going to some backwater.
  • Bobby Orr seldom makes broad-brush statements, so when he does we are all obligated to listen. After Thursday’s BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, Orr came out in favour of reinstituting the redline when asked what he’d change about the game. "You look at those kids tonight coming through the middle and they’re so big and strong that without that centre line there’s so much speed it’s dangerous," said Orr, noting that calling the centre line would cut down on the number of stretch passes and force players to handle the puck -- to make plays and to run the odd give-and-go -- and that might create more offence. It’s interesting how rule changes that enjoy widespread support when they’re enacted can end up boomeranging. Dave King, who spent a great deal of time coaching international hockey, warned everybody that taking out the red line or making the ice surface bigger wasn’t a universal panacea, as so many believed. King noted that the much-despised neutral zone trap was developed in international hockey.
  • Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman all have one thing in common: without the long-term contracts they’d already signed, they would be eligible for free agency next season along with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, possibly Yoenis Cespedes, Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman, as Craig Edwards of Fangraphs pointed out in this piece. What it all means is that one of the least enticing free-agent classes -- the Chicago Cubs freely admit they spent this winter because next winter’s free-agent group is largely composed of older hitters who can be expected to be on a downward path -- could have been one of the best. It also complicates the Toronto Blue Jays' task of getting Bautista or Encarnacion signed, because their agents will be pressured by the players association (and, by extension, other agents) to set the market as high as possible one way or another. Players always get what they want on the open market if they’re patient.
  • THE ENDGAME

    It’s going to be all Cam Newton all the time this week, which is good because any time we’re forced to face issues of race -- particularly given the climate of discourse these days -- it’s a good day. And Newton is right: one of the last vestiges of "quiet" racism is the discomfort wrought by the physically imposing, brash African-American male. Better to have somebody like him carry the torch than Marshawn Lynch; better to have someone who can challenge assumptions through effective communication, as opposed to simple arrogance and spitefulness. We -- and I mean those of us in the largely white-bread, mass media -- need Cam Newton more than ever before.