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Bruce DowbigginOne of these people recognized at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday is not like the others: Martin St. Louis, Martin Brodeur, Willie O’Ree, Jayna Hefford, Alexander Yakushev, Gary Bettman.

Hmm, wonder who?

Most hockey fans – and this is all about the fans, right? – think the institution is about what happens on the ice, not what transpires in a boardroom. Can you say Harold Ballard?

Put that aside. Is there a compelling reason to install Bettman in the Builders category of the Hockey Hall of Fame this year? He’s been the commissioner of the National Hockey League since 1993 and only one team owner now predates him in the league. There have been ample opportunities to give him a plaque in the hall ever since. Why now?

Bettman has given every indication of continuing as the commissioner until the hazmat people come to extract him from his limo. The booing, the snippy press conferences, the endless expansion of the product don’t seem to bore him yet. He’s determined to rule like Queen Victoria until his diamond jubilee.

Perhaps the reason is that Bettman knows that, a year or two from now, it’ll be obvious that he’s planning on locking out the players again to get what he wants in a new collective agreement. And when that inevitability strikes home, people will start to realize that Bettman’s biggest legacy to hockey fans will be all the seasons he’s blighted by denying fans the game they love in labour stoppages:

  • 1994-95 (four months);
  • 2004-05 (entire season);
  • 2013-14 (four months);
  • 2020?

The tendentious arguments about how only a salary cap can keep Winnipeg and New York competitive in the same league will be circulating again, like foul vapours. The NHL Players Association will try to convince itself that when push comes to shove, it won’t do the Trevor Linden thing again – collapsing like a bad soufflé as NHLPA president when owners trot out their “Do what’s best for the game” canard.

No, best to do it this year when everyone is still doing the huzzahs to Bettman for the success of the Vegas Golden Knights expansion or the billions owners will reap from a Seattle team stretching the talent base a little further. Or before cities like Calgary – which he’s threatened with losing their team if the billionaire owners aren’t awarded a Taj Mahal of hockey for their NHL club – call his bluff.

Get him in there and hope that, when reality hits in the next couple of years, it’ll be just too much bother to pull the plaque off the wall. I’d call it cynical but that would insult the real cynics of the world.

But then, the Hall of Fame always starts with noble ideas and ends up being a club used to separate the “good guys” from the disturbers. You can have a dozen journeymen players like Bob Pulford or Leo Boivin on the wall, but it’ll be a frosty Friday before you’ll get induction for a Carl Brewer or Rick Middleton, eminently qualified players who happened to yank the league’s tail just a little too hard.

This year’s other ‘controversy’ is the induction of O’Ree into the players section for breaking the colour barrier in the NHL in 1957. The debate is not about the significance of O’Ree’s status, but of the brevity of his NHL career. He played just 45 games before leaving the six-team league for good. While racism played a part in O’Ree’s short career, no one is making a case that he was the next Bobby Orr, either.

O’Ree is not the first black player in the Hall. Grant Fuhr is deservedly ensconced already. So there’s no need to have at least one player of colour in the Hall. No, this is a virtue signal that the league has established its social bona fides. And that’s fine if that’s the way the Hall wants to go.

The problem is that, having opened the symbolism criteria, where will the Hall choose to go next?

It seems this wrinkle should open to the Hall to people like Fred Sasakamoose, the first Indigenous to play in the NHL. If a player comes out as openly gay, might that be worth a spot in the Hall?

Likewise, more liberal induction terms should finally get Paul Henderson, hero of 1972 Team Canada, his day in the sun. Henderson was a journeyman player who had two weeks in Canada and Moscow that no one will ever forget. His overall body of work was never considered enough for the Hall’s criteria. But the O’Ree virtue signal seems to open the way for Henderson’s supporters to get their man inducted.

And don’t get me started on why Don Cherry is not in the broadcast section of the Hall while beat writers, team broadcasters and outright shills have been given the Foster Hewitt Award. Whatever you think of his content, every one of the journalists being honoured has ridden his gaudy coattails in the industry.

Perhaps they want him to retire before giving him the award?

Just like Gary Bettman. Oh wait. …

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes 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 publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.


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