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Bettman deserves Hall of Fame induction — but not now

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was announced as an inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2018 Tuesday, and while he's not unworthy of induction, the timing is remarkably bizarre.

The first thing that needs to be said is that despite the lockouts, the glowing puck and his league’s stance on CTE, Gary Bettman is an outstanding NHL commissioner. In his 25-plus years at the helm of the league, Bettman has been responsible for growing the game into a multi-billion dollar industry. He has found credible and well-heeled owners for markets that seemed hopeless. He has shepherded the game through enormous change and transition, simultaneously staying true to its roots.

Does he deserve to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder? Absolutely. Does he deserve to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as builder in 2018? Absolutely not.

But this is what hockey does. It thumbs its nose at the establishment and wears its status as an outlier with pride. Of course, that’s part of the reason it remains a fringe sport in every country that is not Canada, but these fellas – and the emphasis is definitely on fellas – love to take care of their own. And nothing symbolizes that more than Gary Bettman being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame while he remains an active commissioner.

The fact that the Hall of Fame’s selection committee sees no conflict in inducting an active commissioner into its ranks borders on mind-boggling. But it’s not as though there is no precedent for this. Clarence Campbell was enshrined in 1966, 11 years before he retired as president and John Zeigler entered the ranks in 1987, five years before he moved on. This is a body that saw fit to induct Jim Gregory as a builder, while he still held the title of chairman of the selection committee. And, of course, there was the induction of former NHL Players' Association head Alan Eagleson in 1989, three years before he left the job. And we all know how that turned out. The lack of awareness is truly impressive.

Outside of hockey, this has happened only once before. Former National Football League head Pete Rozelle was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, four years before he retired as commissioner. The five baseball commissioners in Cooperstown were all inducted after they retired, as were the three National Basketball Association commissioners who are enshrined.

“I really wasn’t focused on this happening now,” Bettman said on the conference call to announce his induction. And that’s because he should not have been.

And again, this has nothing to do with whether or not Bettman deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. All six of the people who were elected – Bettman, Willie O’Ree, Martin Brodeur, Martin St-Louis, Alexander Yakushev and Jayna Hefford – are worthy inductees. Only five of them are worthy inductees in 2018. Yes, there will be people out there who believe for a host of reasons that Bettman does not belong in the Hall of Fame. The league’s stance on concussions and CTE, of which Bettman is the lead spokesman, is deplorable and will almost certainly put the league on the wrong side of history. That’s an argument that has merit, but the totality of his body of work has to be considered. And there are few people in the Hall of Fame who are not without their shortcomings.

But to induct Bettman while he’s still active in his role as commissioner is an incredible conflict of interest. If Bettman gets into the Hall of Fame right now, then why not induct Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Marie-Philip Poulin immediately as well? That’s easy. It’s because with players, there is a three-year waiting period after they retire, which gives the hockey world a good opportunity to examine their careers and legacies and provide some breathing room behind the end of a career and an induction.

But for whatever reason, the Hall of Fame doesn’t do this with its own executives. It inducted Glen Sather into its ranks in 1997, largely on his brilliant work behind the bench and in the front office of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty. His induction came three years before he moved on to take over the New York Rangers, where he had far less than a Hall of Fame career as a hockey executive. Would he have been inducted anyway? Almost certainly. As would Bettman have been if we had waited until three years after he retired. But the point is that unless something is happening here that nobody anticipates, Bettman’s work is not done. What if, for example, in 2020-21, he leads the charge to shut down the NHL for another full-season lockout? Would that not affect his legacy? Would it not be something that would at least be worthy of consideration?

As is always the case with the Secret Stonecutters Society that is the Hall of Fame’s selection committee, we’ll never know what their reasoning was for admitting Bettman now. Members of the 17 all-male committee are not allowed to discuss whom they choose to induct or not induct and none of them was on the conference call announcing the newest inductees Tuesday afternoon.

It is all so hockey. Not all, but some of these guys view the Hall of Fame as this exclusive little club that good old boys use to honor other good old boys and no-harm, no foul. Back pats all around. Absolutely not. It’s a public trust for the game that is charged with the very important task of preserving legacies. And it’s an embarrassment to the entire organization that those who make these selections don’t see a conflict of interest when it is staring them right in the face.

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