By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Remember when there was no hockey for the first four months of the season?
Remember when the game was held hostage the owners and a commissioner who wanted to squeeze every last cent they could out of the players’ hands before allowing the game to continue?
Those memories came flooding back less than two hours before the Blackhawks and the Bruins played their triple overtime epic in Game 1.
Gary Bettman appeared front and center to take questions from the media in his annual state of the NHL press conference.
Bettman does his Roger Goodell impression by sitting at a table, making a brief statement and then taking questions from hockey’s hot-shot media members. If you follow the sport closely, you know names like Pierre LeBrun, Kevin Allen, Craig Custance and Bob McKenzie. Those are the guys who get the front-row seats or stand close to the front.
If anyone expected to get a humbled Bettman, dubbed the “lockout commissioner” by New York Post hockey scribe Larry Brooks, they would have been sorely mistaken.
There were no apologies for the lockout by Bettman. Instead, he explained it was a painful but necessary step to make the sport healthy.
He proudly pointed at the Original Six final and the health of the sport. “We have two great franchises in the final and Jeremy Jacobs (Bruins owner) and Rocky Wirtz (Blackhawks owner) are to be congratulated,” Bettman stated. “We played 58 percent of our games this year and we had more than 58 percent of our projected revenue. We also have labor peace for the next 10 years.”
Bettman may have been crowing about the Stanley Cup Final matchup, but that’s basically a matter of luck. If the Ottawa Senators had made it out of the East and Minnesota Wild had made it out of the West, it would have been a different story.
The television ratings for the first game were lights out, as the NHL had its highest-rated Stanley Cup Final game since 1997 when the Detroit Red Wings beat the Philadelphia Flyers.
The local ratings in Chicago and Boston were also significantly higher than they were in 2010 and 2011, the years that the Blackhawks and Bruins each won the Stanley Cup.
If these two teams play a long series, this is likely to be the most highly-rated series in many years, and Bettman will take his bows.
I asked him if there was a sense of relief for him because two such storied and popular franchises were in the finals.
“I was relieved in January when we finally made the deal,” Bettman said. “I think these two teams reflect both the history of the sport and how well the game can be played when it’s at its best. But I think our sport is in good shape now and for the future. I am relieved we have a working agreement with our players.”
Bettman was asked if he would continue to present the Stanley Cup at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final.
He has regularly been greeted with a shocking crescendo of boos, no matter what arena he has been in. The catcalls and derision will almost certainly be more intense this year as a result of the angst-inducing lockout.
Bettman paused a second before answering and then rose up in his chair, and elevated his chin. “Yes, I will present the Stanley Cup,” he said defiantly.
It’s as if he was daring the fans that will be in attendance at the United Center or TD Garden to fire their best shot when it’s time to hand out the hardware.
They will undoubtedly take this preening commissioner up on his offer.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.