Decades ago I wrote a poem called “The Background Man”, a poem about history’s unnoticed people who make things happen. He is the guy who hated Christ from the very first moment he saw him and then conveniently arranged to be in Jerusalem anonymously in a large mob to shout “Crucify him” when Pilate put him on trial. She is the woman who was a servant of King Charles I of Great Britain who passed along a secret warning to the opposition leaders in the House of Commons that Charles was coming in person to the House to arrest them, allowing them to escape thus triggering the English Civil War. He is the man who made it possible for exiled Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin to return to Russia from Switzerland through enemy territory in a sealed German railway car.
There are many unknowns who have anonymously played key roles in history but right now in sports, my candidate for the current title of “Best Background Man” is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Right now he is involved in an important anonymous duty, finding a suitable owner for a returned Quebec Nordiques.
As I have written in many previous articles, Gary Bettman made a tour in 2010 of the three cities that lost their teams in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, and offered them reasonable terms for a return to the NHL; great fan support (no problem for all three cities), a proper NHL arena, and a suitable NHL owner.
When Canada’s richest man David Thomson, along with Mark Chipman expressed interest in bringing back an NHL team to Winnipeg, Bettman told them to be patient as he knew he might have an ownership crisis in Atlanta. So when operating a team from Atlanta became impossible, there was Gary with all the behind the scenes background work done, ready to announce that the Thrashers would be quickly shifted to Winnipeg.
Now he is faced with a crisis in Quebec City. Quebec, with Bettman’s encouragement built a first class NHL arena and now wants back into the NHL. But the potential owner, media giant Quebecor is unacceptable to the NHL because its majority owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau made personal racist attacks on NHL Board member Geoff Molson that were offensive not only to Molson but probably to the majority of the Board of Governors.
Bettman does not want to go back on his word to Quebec City, nor offend important people like the Quebec City Mayor and the Quebec Provincial Premier. When the Quebecor bid was turned down, neither the Mayor nor the Premier, who have every reason to publicly denounce Bettman as a double crosser, who did not keep his word after they spent nearly $400 million tax dollars on a new arena, have said not one negative word. Most likely as soon Bettman realized that Peladeau would not be an acceptable NHL owner, he went privately to both the Mayor and the Premier and told them to keep on building the arena while he dealt with the ownership problem.
Now Mario Lemieux, a lifelong Pittsburgh Penguin suddenly puts his ownership shares up for sale. Then Patrick Roy, vice-president and coach of his former team, the Colorado Avalanche suddenly quits. But both men also have strong ties to Quebec City and as French Canadian hockey heroes, would make ideal owners for a returned Nordiques. It would not be surprising that behind-the-scenes Bettman went to both men and asked them to front an acceptable ownership group and that it has the blessing of ex-Nordique Joe Sakic, the current general manager of Colorado. Stay tuned to see what else develops.
Bettman has done other significant background work. He found acceptable owners for Ottawa, Florida, and Tampa Bay. He negotiated the rich Canadian and American television deals. Phoenix somehow still survives with an NHL team. And he is probably working on finding two new western expansion cities to balance up the league conferences.
Here is a problem that has been around for nearly three decades: getting an NHL team into Hamilton, Ontario. But here is the starting point. If I am a potential owner with $500 million to spend, the first thing to do is get Gary Bettman on my side and then let him work in the background behind the scenes. Because if I want Hamilton in the NHL, that may be the only way to accomplish it.