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ST. LOUIS — Gary Bettman is someone who every NHL team would love to have watching over the final game of their season — because that likely means he’s there to hand out some hardware.
While the Stanley Cup was nowhere in sight Thursday night at Enterprise Center in St. Louis, it’s noteworthy the NHL commissioner took time out of an extremely busy schedule to take in the Winnipeg Jets’ season-opener against the hometown Blues.
Bettman has made no secret of the fact he considers bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg in 2011 among his proudest moments, essentially righting a wrong from the past after the franchise fled to the Arizona desert in 1996 and become the Coyotes.
While it would be unbecoming of someone in his position to openly root for a particular team — akin to asking a parent to name their favourite child — Bettman clearly has a soft spot for the Jets. And he wasn’t against talking about it Thursday, practically lighting up when asked about his impressions of Winnipeg’s march to the Western Conference final last spring.
“As exciting as it was inside the building, the crowds outside the building, we had to keep closing more and more streets — thank you city of Winnipeg and Winnipeg police for helping us through that,” Bettman said to laughter.
“What Mark Chipman and the Jets organization have done to bring back NHL hockey to Winnipeg, we knew we were sorely missed. The circumstances required what happened. But having the opportunity to come back was special. And the reception the Jets have gotten has been nothing short of phenomenal. Whether it’s the whiteout or just the number of people out on the street for viewing parties, it was an incredible reception for the team, and for hockey.”
Bettman seemingly gets booed in every rink he steps foot in, embracing the role of being a “super-villain” of sorts to fans. But Bell MTS Place might be one of the few safe havens for him, a place where the welcome is typically quite warm.
Bettman also spoke about the big opportunity that lies ahead for the Jets as they head to Finland later this month to play a pair of games against the Florida Panthers. The Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils are currently in Germany for two upcoming games, and Bettman just got back from China, where the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins played two pre-season contests.
“What Mark Chipman and the Jets organization have done to bring back NHL hockey to Winnipeg, we knew we were sorely missed. The circumstances required what happened. But having the opportunity to come back was special. And the reception the Jets have gotten has been nothing short of phenomenal” – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
“We love sharing our international game. Players come from over 20 countries throughout the world. It’s great to encourage not only the development of the sport but to continue the development of world-class players,” said Bettman. “The game’s never been faster, more skillful or more entertaining.”
He hinted overseas games will continue but couldn’t pin down a specific number of teams he’d like to see participate each season.
“The list of clubs that raise their hands and say we want to go exceeds the opportunities that we have in the short term,” said Bettman.
“It’s not a hard and fast number. We’re chronicling and reviewing each experience to see what made sense and worked well, see if there are things we can improve upon, see what the opportunities are. So there isn’t a formula where we’re saying this is the number of teams. After we’re done with this year’s experience, we know we’ll do more. How much more, where we’ll go is something that we’ll determine after we finish the experience.”
Winnipeg is one of the most exciting young teams in the league, as are another Canadian club in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Some fans are already salivating at the prospects of an all-Canadian Cup final.
Bettman said while it’s great to see teams north of the border enjoying success, the unpredictability of the sport means anything can happen, so he wasn’t about to offer up any predictions on how things might play out.
“In the final analysis, the competitive balance we have leads us to the point today where whatever your prognostication is in terms of who’s going to make the playoffs and who might be able to win it all, just about every team has a shot. And that’s the beauty of the system we have,” said Bettman, who was in Washington on Wednesday night to participate in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup banner-raising.
No doubt the Jets are hoping to be able to play in front of Bettman at least one more time this season — preferably next June. And then to see him at Bell MTS Place this time next year.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.