GLENDALE, Ariz. – You’ve probably heard Phoenix called a non-traditional hockey market. Why argue with the overwhelming body of evidence? After all, Phoenix is the only place where they boo Wayne Gretzky and cheer Gary Bettman.
If you know your history, you understand the former.
But given the generally low popularity of professional sports commissioners, the latter may require deeper explanation.
“It’s pretty simple, actually,” Coyotes alternate governor Anthony LeBlanc said after a press conference Tuesday at Jobing.com Arena to introduce the team’s new ownership group. “If it wasn’t for Gary Bettman, this franchise wouldn’t be here.”
Bettman has been criticized widely for his steadfast determination to keep the Coyotes in Arizona.
Bettman fields criticism for many things, but given the twists and turns of this saga, the team’s staggering annual losses, the sheer length of time it took to consummate a deal, the numerous ownership groups that entered and exited the picture, and the political roadblocks thrown up by the Goldwater Institute and the City of Glendale over the past four years, it’s a small miracle Bettman chose to stay the course.
“The ups and downs get chronicled at levels of height and depth that probably aren’t realistic,” Bettman said. “Sometimes, media try to treat business issues like they’re a game where there’s an immediate outcome. We understood we were involved in a process, and we understood the complexities of the process. And when the process wasn’t going properly, we generally understood why.”
Even so, Bettman was at the forefront of the deal longer than anyone else, and that meant he was the target for constant barbs from hockey fans and media members across North America – many of them making legitimate points.
“I think I may have been more visible, but this was with the advised consent and support of the NHL Board of Governors,” he said. “This entire period of time was created by unusual circumstances. We were responding based on what we felt was the right thing to do under these difficult circumstances.”
LeBlanc said it’s instructive for people to consult their history books before criticizing Bettman.
“Unfortunately, people have short memories,” he said. “I live in Ottawa, and the Senators went through this same thing 10 years ago when they went bankrupt and the franchise was going to get moved.
“Gary stepped in and wanted to secure the franchise. He went out and he found an owner. People forget that if it wasn’t for Gary, that franchise wouldn’t be there. Same thing for Buffalo.”
Bettman said the high number of moving parts conspired to drag this deal on for so long. But he never stopped believing that Phoenix was the right market for the team, he never stopped believing that moving the franchise would be a disservice to the Valley’s fans while sending the wrong message to fans in other areas, and he never stopped believing that a deal could close with a group that could finally bring stability.
“It was just a question of lining up all the right pieces at the right time,” he said.
Throughout the process, Bettman kept the Coyotes’ staff and players informed.
“He would call me on the phone, and he was always totally honest and up front with me,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “Sometimes, that was discouraging when you heard what he had to say, but at the same time, you appreciated that he was actually telling you.”
When asked if it was personally gratifying to finally sit down at a podium with IceArizona principals George Gosbee and LeBlanc on Tuesday to announce the sale of the team, Bettman deflected the question.
“I feel good that all of the effort has reached the conclusion that we had all hoped for, but it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about Arizona. It’s about Glendale. It’s about the Coyotes. It’s about the fans. It’s about NHL hockey in the desert.
“I’m just a piece of the puzzle that tries to put it together, but it’s not about me and it never was.”
It would be inaccurate to heap all the credit on Bettman for keeping hockey alive in Arizona. Too many others contributed to that effort, including LeBlanc, Gosbee, Glendale council member Gary Sherwood and the other three council members who approved the arena-management deal, citizens groups like Glendale First!, fans and the Coyotes’ players, coaches, management team and staff.
But in this one, oddball corner of the NHL universe, there are plenty of people ready and willing to praise a guy who rarely enjoys such perks.
“You know what would be awesome?” asked Doan, noting the irony that Bettman was once essentially the team’s owner. “It would be awesome if he could hand us the Stanley Cup some day.”
“If you’re a true Coyotes fan, you should send a letter of thanks to the commissioner,” LeBlanc added, “and maybe a bouquet of flowers while you’re at it.”