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So far, so good

The last time I wrote an overview of Gary Bettman, I mentioned that I thought that he'd shown himself to be the best commissioner the NHL has had, but there'd been a few bumps in the road -- bumps that had been closer and closer together. That seemingly fair-minded analysis landed me in my publisher's office with my editor, the managing editor, Commissioner Bettman and Jeremy Jacobs, who was then the head of the NHL's powerful audit and finance committee (he's now Chairman of the Board of Governors).

The purpose of the meeting: to explain to me how I might have misunderstood Bettman, his value to the NHL and what a genuinely nice guy he is. Now, I don't work for that company anymore and it's been my experience that the man who is about to mark his 15th year at the top of the NHL's corporate flow chart has grown tougher skin since he flew in on a red eye for that little "get to know me" session.

After all, there are still bumps on and off the ice, but in terms of why commissioners are hired and retained -- which is and always will be money -- GB has done one heck of a job. Costs, for the most part, are capped. Revenue is up. Attendance is stable though lower than annually reported since the NHL came off the second of Bettman's forced lockouts. And -- this is most important and dear to every owner's heart -- the value of franchises has risen dramatically on his watch

Example: the expected sale of the Edmonton Oilers. The struggling franchise in what is arguably the NHL's smallest city is expected to change hands for upwards of $200 million. Compare that to the $50 million cost of an expansion franchise (Ottawa and Anaheim) the day before Bettman was anointed in Palm Beach, Fla. in February 1993. Even with inflation, the increase is staggering -- not nearly the value of an NFL or Major League franchise or even one in the NBA (which is hard to gauge because there haven't been nearly as many in bankruptcy or for sale), but in the NHL, it's a noteworthy achievement.

In addition, Bettman won a to-the-death battle with his nemesis, former NHL Players Association boss Bob Goodenow, who was dumped in favor of the more league-friendly Ted Saskin,who has been dumped by the PA and replaced by Paul Kelly. But the overall impact of Goodenow's departure has been a huge advantage for the NHL. The owners recognize and respect that.

Bettman has also guided four franchises -- Buffalo, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles -- through bankruptcies and back to seeming fiscal health. He's boosted overall revenue to a reported $2.5 billion and though there's still no national TV contract of merit regarding over-the-air networks in the U.S., regional cable income -- the lifeblood of many franchises -- is doing well in both fees and viewers.

Bettman has presided over a major revamping of the rules of the game, an initiative that has its critics, but it has opened the flow somewhat. His changes have reestablished the fact that speed and execution are what make the game enjoyable to watch. He even changed the layout of the ice in an attempt to alter the culture of obstruction, defense-first hockey and domination by goaltenders.

It hasn't all worked, and there is a reasonable hue and cry for more change, but the changes, including the shootout, have had enough impact to bring loyal fans back into arenas at even higher ticket prices, and to create at least a buzz that attracts new ones.

"I think the Commissioner has done an excellent job," noted Anaheim Ducks general manger Brian Burke, once Bettman's right-hand man in the league office in New York and now an occasional mouthpiece for even more change.

Not everyone agrees, nor is everyone is happy with 30 teams and revenue-sharing for small markets, or the way offense seems to again be on the slide. There's no universal agreement on what to do about it, but that's always been the case in the NHL. The most lasting accomplishment of Bettman's tenure may be is his ability to suppress dissent while consolidating and using power. He has what amounts to near complete control over every aspect of the game and its business. Say what you want about the merits of parity, but it exists in the NHL because of his fiscal strategy. Going into the final third of the season, there is arguably only one team -- the Red Wings -- that can be characterized as an elite club. After Detroit, there a few notables and then a bulk-rate package in both conferences that can be viewed as anything from also-rans to playoff contenders.

Fans of super teams might not like it, but in terms of situations that create hope for playoff opportunity, the NHL is starting to rival the NFL. Competitive teams and games tend to produce and sustain fan interest (read: good for the gate) through the regular season. It's something Bettman has long worked for and we can expect more of it as the cap rules take hold, more players reach the free-agent market, and GMs figure how to best manage their budgets.

It would be wrong to say Bettman has fulfilled all his mandates. The 30-team NHL has not created the national TV footprint it desires in the U.S. He hasn't moved hockey to a place in the American sporting consciousness that football, baseball, basketball and perhaps even golf and auto racing have achieved. One could argue that the lockout cost market share and media coverage in America.

But in Bettman's mind it's all good, a phrase he's offered up to me on several occasions. If you're an owner, it's true. If you're a fan, well, the game is a little better, but tickets are a little pricey. Some GMs are grumbling about how hard it is to keep and develop talent. Not everyone is convinced that the economic structure Bettman created can sustain growth over time. Still, looking back, he has been at the helm of substantial change, much of it good and nearly all of it hard won through the use of stern and, at times, downright vicious methods.

It's how Bettman does business and, over the 15 years of his tenure, the owners have largely embraced it; bumps and all.

The Sundin saga continues

There are conflicting reports as to whether or not Toronto captain Mats Sundin will or remove his no-trade clause at the deadline and give Leafs management an opportunity to move him for prospects and/or draft picks. Understand this: when it's all sorted out, Sundin will do what is right for both him and the Leafs and that is allowing the team to make a deal as long as he approves of the ultimate destination. Sundin, his agent, and new Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher are already exploring those options.

Sundin the Shark?

Lots of trade rumors out there, but it seems likely that the San Jose Sharks will rise above the talk and walk the walk. The Sharks are good, but they struggle to beat Western Conference teams like Anaheim and Detroit in San Jose (0-7-1 in games against those teams before the All-Star break). The big need is for a second-line center behind Joe Thornton. Patrick Marleau is not filling that role. He's struggling offensively and is among the league's worst players on the plus-minus charts (-19 through Wednesday night).

Sundin would be a great fit there and the Sharks have the picks, prospects and room under the cap to make it happen, but if it's not Sundin, they will keep looking. The Sharks are essentially the same team they were last season and that's not good enough to be the best in the West.

Dropping like flies

The race for the Art Ross Trophy (scoring champion) likely will go not to the best scorer in the game, but the best one left standing at the conclusion of the regular season. Sidney Crosby went down last week with a high ankle sprain and will be out six to eight weeks. Daniel Alfredsson, who grabbed the lead just before the All-Star break, has come up with a hip problem. On Wednesday, night Ilya Kovalchuk was taken out by what looked like an intentional knee-on-knee hit. Kovalchuk, who was suspended for one game last week for a similar hit, was felled by Jarkko Ruutu of the Penguins. Look for Ruttu, the player who was stomped by Islanders forward Chris Simon earlier this season, to get a supplemental discipline suspension Thursday or Friday.

European revolt

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly downplayed any problems about NHL Players Association boss Kelly and the announcement of NHL games in Europe to open next season. Kelly put a pall on the announcement at the All-Star Game by saying the players hadn't signed off yet, but Daly on Wednesday said he didn't expect a long-term problem.

Reports circulating around the league claim that Kelly is under some pressure to show resistance to the NHL and that things between him and Bettman have been a little too chummy for some PA hardliners. There is truth to that, but it won't stop the games from being played in Stockholm and Prague.

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