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I Don't Like Mondays — February 1, 2016

Two stories emerged from the latest NHL All Star Weekend. 1) John Scott— who’s never met an opponent he couldn’t punch— became some sort of secular saint for defying Gary Bettman’s NHL. And 2) Bettman was given a contract extension through 2022 as commissioner. By which time the All Star format will probably be team mascots playing each other in the big game.

Let’s deal first with Scott, because nearly everyone looking for a easy story did the same this weekend. The man was everywhere. CBS Evening News— which covers the NHL like never— did a feature on the loveable lug. (To everyone but Phil Kessel, of course) He was everyone’s underdog, the man who took being a social media punch line all the way to playing on a line with Daniel Sedin.

In a political year that’s all about outsiders, Scott was Bernie Sanders with real KOs to his credit. Upsetting the order is all the rage, and the veteran pugilist fed into that spirit amongst voters.  

If a bunch of focus-grouped suits offer a public vote on the All Star team, anything can happen. What does Scott’s public acclaim say about Bettman and the modern NHL which didn’t want him to participate after he’d aced their little election?  For many hockey fans, Bettman is the man in the limo with tinted windows, the guy in the private jet and the corporate tower, out of touch with hockey’s visceral appeals. 

The current mania to stretch the brand (and the talent pool) to another two cities is the latest in his tone-deaf efforts to turn the sport into a frozen franchise scheme. So is the World Cup with its Under-23 North America Team Bieber and Team Bouillabaisse of mongrel hockey nations. 

The pinched, humourless response and retraction in the Scott episode is just another of the symptoms of Commissioner Derangement Syndrome. So, given an opportunity to tell the NHL boss where to get off, what do you think hockey’s culture was going to do? Perhaps the execs who conspired against rewarding Scott for his vote tally should be relieved it wasn’t worse. The mischief monkeys of social media could have sent a guy with assault accusations against him to the game.

Oh darn, Patrick Kane was there, wasn’t he? In any event, Scott landed in Nashville replete with his own T-shirts and a motley media band following him everywhere he went in Music City. Then he went on to win the MVP. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work with hockey’s fake humility gene. Scott was supposed to shake his head mournfully about winning the vote then say he wasn’t worthy. For a while that’s exactly what he did. Till it was discovered that he had a bonus in his contract for getting to an All Star Game. Faced with that, Scott’s humility disappeared, and he himself appeared in Nashville to score twice in the contest.

The only person whose antennae were jangled was the Commish himself. Which brings us to….

Gary Bettman being the NHL’s capo da tutti capi  till he’s almost Sanders’ age. The news that Bettman is planning on seriously overstaying his best-by date comes as no surprise to insiders who’ve been promoting the idea of Another Six Years for some time behind the scenes. 

“His interest in the product— the chicken in KFC as it were— has been seconded to sweats like Colin Campbell and Brian Burke. Which is too bad, because another six years of the current style of play is killing the wow factor.”

While Bettman’s charm was lost on the mayor of Calgary, he’s still considered a swell guy by the30 (about to be 32) NHL owners. He’s willing to go to a city and play the black hat, giving the owner plausible deniability when a team wants to put a city council over the barrel for a new arena. He tolerates being booed when he hands out the Stanley Cup each year. And he’s not immune to ginning up any old idea that makes the owners a few dollars more.

The extension is bad news for the NHL on many levels.. Even when Bettman had a vision for the league he’s run 1993 it was very much limited to things like expansion, salary caps, player lockouts, upgrading arenas etc. Now, running on fumes, he’s simply trying them out again in hopes of further pay days. 

His interest in the product— the chicken in KFC as it were— has been seconded to sweats like Colin Campbell and Brian Burke. Which is too bad, because another six years of the current style of play is killing the wow factor. The game is over-coached, over-exposed and over way too late in June. Another half dozen years of Gary in the private jet will do nothing to change all that.

Giving your heart to a bunch of athletes wearing a team’s uniform is not an adult thing to do. But we do it. Willingly. In the case of IDLM, our particular depravity is the exercise in futility known as the Detroit Lions. While fans of other teams savour Super Bowls or repeated trips to the big game, the Lions' history is signposted by superstars who retired too early.

The Lions last won the NFL title in 1957. They’ve won one playoff game since 1991. With no titles to reminisce about, Lions fans only had some of the greatest players to watch. It invariably ends badly. There was the wonderful Oklahoma Heisman winner Billy Sims. After a great start to his career (and no playoff wins) Sims ripped up his knee without ever being hit. Career over.

Then there was the incomparable Barry Sanders. After 10 All-Pro seasons— with no championships— Sanders quit the inept Lions in exasperation. He couldn’t take any more losing. Sanders’ successor in greatness was receiver Calvin Johnson. A devastating combination of size and speed, Johnson was the model for all pro receivers. But he too was forced to suffer through eight years of Lions incompetence without a playoff win. 

Sunday came the inevitable Lion moment:  The news says that Johnson is joining Sims and Sanders on the sidelines. No winning and too many hurts broke his will. He deserved better. They all deserved better. But under the Ford family, getting by was good enough.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy

Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).