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JONES: NHL commissioner Bettman happy betting on Edmonton

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media prior to the 2019 Stanley Cup finals in Boston on May 27, 2019.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks with the media prior to the 2019 Stanley Cup finals in Boston on May 27, 2019.

It was October of 2011 when I joined then-Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel on an Air Canada flight with a connection to New York.

At the same time, owner Daryl Katz and several members of his Edmonton Oilers entourage were flying on his private jet to New York as well.

The project to build a new downtown arena in Edmonton had effectively fallen apart and Katz’s organization and Edmonton city council couldn’t possibly have managed to get further apart.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had effectively issued a summons both the owner and the mayor to the NHL offices on the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan.

I reminded Bettman of that Friday when he joined current Edmonton mayor Don Iveson, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Oilers Entertainment Group executives Bob Nicholson, Stu Ballantyne and Tim Shipton for a Zoom conference call to celebrate Edmonton as the front-to-finish hub city for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I can’t help but think of the numerous sessions I had with mayor Mandel and Daryl Katz to get this magnificent facility built. If you had asked me then if we’d be there today, the answer would have been ‘No,’ for a hundred reasons. And none in anticipating COVID-19,” Bettman responded. “So if we can get to the end of the road we’ve mapped out here, this will be a great success story and a testament to a made-in-Alberta solution.

“Daryl probably lobbied me harder than any other owner that was interested in hosting a hub,” laughed Bettman. “That is not an exaggeration. There were multiple e-mails, multiple texts and multiple phone calls every single day until we announced we were coming to Edmonton.

“And you know what? The best thing I can say is that he was right. With everything that has been going on in North America, he said, ‘This is a place where not only do we have the infrastructure with the great arena, not only is this a city that will do everything that needs to be done to make this event a success, this is a place where you’ll be safe.’  He was right.”

Bettman may get booed everywhere he goes, but Edmonton fans are more than aware that, at a time when Winnipeg and Quebec City were relocating, the NHL commissioner fought to keep the Oilers alive coming out of the Peter Pocklington ownership crisis.

Against all good sense, Bettman allowed a 28-person ownership group to keep the team in town.

To be presiding over the occasion with Edmonton selected as the prime site to hold the majority of playoff games, including the two conference finals and the Stanley Cup final, will have to be of significant personal satisfaction to Bettman when he presents the Stanley Cup here in early October.

I suggested to the commissioner that if the players managed to make it into the two hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto with no new positive tests, and liked their new digs and the lengths that have been taken to insure their health and happiness, the NHL could emerge as the leader of all pro sports league return-to-play projects.

“Our goal is not to be perceived by whomever as the leader,” said Bettman who provided the players with an hour-long video presentation to watch before they headed to Edmonton and Toronto on Sunday. “Our goal is to do the right things at the right time under extraordinary circumstances. We watched what everybody else was doing but we moved at our own pace, at our own time.

“I know there were some people wondering why we waited so long to select from the 10 presentations to be hub cities. But ultimately, I wanted to use the data and have the ability in real time to make the best possible decision for the health and well being of everybody. And now were in a place where we think we’ve made a terrific decision.”

Bettman not only credits the players association for the part they’ve played to make it happen, but the players themselves for what they’ve continued to do since the ratification of the return-to-play protocols and the new collective bargaining agreement.

“The players have been extraordinarily professional and responsible in what we’ve asked them to do in terms of keeping themselves safe and healthy.

“Last week, I think we tested 800 players involving 2,500 tests and there were two positives. I’d like none. But that’s incredible. And our belief is that with everything that we’re doing, once we get into the hub and everybody is being tested every day and everybody is social distancing and adhering to the protocols, we’re going to have as good a chance as anyone to crown our champion and present the Stanley Cup. And that’s what this has been all about.

“Were happy to be coming to Edmonton because we think all the critical factors have come into play.”

This could turn out to be the crowning achievement of Gary Bettman’s career, and thinking back to that day in New York, it would be appropriate for it to happen in Edmonton.

E-mail: tjones@postmedia.com

On Twitter: @ByTerryJones

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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