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Opinion: Want Change in the NHL? Think Big Picture

If there is going to be real change in the NHL after the past few weeks, there needs to be a lot more done by all parties involved to make it happen, says Adam Proteau.
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I’ve been writing about NHL hockey for nearly 25 years now. I’ve been writing articles about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for just about that long. I’ve even been accused of having a vendetta against the man, which I don’t, of course. I’ve just tried to hold his feet to the fire and ask him to be accountable because his primary role is to represent the league, good or bad.

So, in this latest, brutal, public misstep by the NHL – the Kyle Beach/sex assault fiasco in Chicago, I mean – there has been an uptick in calls for Bettman to step down after some 28 years in his role. I don’t expect that, though. I expect that Bettman’s real bosses – the 32 owners of the league who pay his salary – are willing to let him take all the bullets and remain a human safety shield from the outcries of media and fans.

I give credit to Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman, who made some strong statements when facing media last week. Chipman needs to walk the walk after talking the talk, but this is a meaningful statement that fans and media can return to if Chipman’s deeds don’t follow his words.

The same goes for the 31 other NHL team owners. They can choose to let Bettman continue to take the flak for it, but it would behoove them to step up individually and assert themselves as an honest-to-goodness supporter of abuse victims’ rights. That’s for starters. They also need to figure out a way to contribute to hockey’s grassroots and prevent any predators from damaging the lives of more young fans of the sport. Hockey’s insular culture has to change, and real change starts from the top, but immediately following that, it’s the bottom and most vulnerable that needs help.

Indeed, there have been other notorious human beings that have plagued hockey long before the Chicago saga. Hockey coach Graham James sexually assaulted numerous young men in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, and although there was an intense, angry reaction from the public when James was arrested and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, James’ crimes did not lead to more widespread change at the amateur, minor-league and professional levels. Some people talked a good game when it came to reform, but as the Hawks’ travesty has proven, the issue of assault and abuse in hockey has not been sufficiently addressed.

People will note, as they should, that when the abuse was happening in Chicago, Bettman was well into his days as commissioner. This all happened under his corporate umbrella. But I don’t assign the majority of blame on him. This current tragedy is about the power of one NHL franchise to keep its skeletons in a closet for as long as it could. But Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, and, yes, each and every one of the owners are now under a microscope to see how they go about ensuring nothing like the crimes perpetuated amidst the Blackhawks’ watch ever happens again.

Honestly, I don’t believe Bettman will step down before he’s truly ready to. He’s soon going to pass the 30-year mark as commissioner, and at 69 years old, he’s under no serious pressure to retire. He likes the job – on some level, he likes being booed, even in a scenario like the Stanley Cup presentation, where he hands over the trophy – and he knows who he’s ultimately working for.

So, if you want to effect real change in the NHL level and beyond it, you may want to try applying pressure to team owners instead. Most of them have businesses that thrived enough to get them to be able to buy an NHL franchise. And most of those businesses are more responsive to angry consumers than an NHL league that, for many of them, amounts to a toy they play with.

It’s not about Bettman. It’s about the bigger picture.

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