Politics

Simmons Sunday: Gary Bettman has to do the right thing and bar NHL players from Beijing

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Gary Bettman needs to be clear and take a strong leadership role at this most challenging and difficult time for sport and society.

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Commissioner Bettman needs to bar NHL players from participating in the Olympic Games in February — as much as that breaks my heart and probably yours — because he’s going to need those unscheduled days to be able to get in the entirety of his regular season.

And at the same time, he needs to put his league on hold now — just as has been done with several teams through Dec. 26, until it’s safe enough, healthy enough, and strong enough for the league to continue in the midst of the latest overactive wave of COVID-19.

It shouldn’t matter now that that was originally a players’ decision. It shouldn’t matter now that Bettman negotiated all of this in good faith to enable players to go to Beijing. It shouldn’t matter now that different teams from different countries will obviously view this in a variety of ways.
Sometimes, under emergency circumstances — and this is definitely an emergency — you first have to do what is right, no matter what determinations were previously made or agreed to.

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That’s why Bettman is paid so significantly to be in charge of the NHL. He’s paid by the owners.

And he is their commissioner. But he has to take a step away from whatever side he may represent now to do what is right for his league and for the game.

The Maple Leafs had been one of the heathier NHL teams up until recent days. And then quickly, four players, including captain John Tavares, and unofficial captain Jason Spezza, were placed in COVID protocol. Their game in Calgary was canceled the other night and then games against Vancouver and Seattle for Saturday and Sunday. Between now and the end of this calendar year, who knows how many more games will be put on hold?

And that’s just one team.

Teams have also been shut down in Calgary, Vancouver, Nashville, Florida and in Boston, basically all parts of North America.

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Bettman, his leadership group, and the NHL Players’ Association are juggling all kinds of balls right now, just trying to stay a step ahead of the virus that has affected all of our lives. Before February arrives, it’s impossible to know just how many games will need to be rescheduled. But those 20-plus days will be logically needed to complete the 82-game campaign.

The Leafs just went on a four-game western road trip. They played one of those games.
And this is just the beginning for postponements. Another beginning of woe.

HEAR AND THERE

I feel for NHL players who so wanted to be part of the Olympic Games four years ago and were denied the opportunity. And I also understand why, under current COVID protocols, they wouldn’t want to participate in Beijing, even if it was available. I also feel for the majority of NHL players who weren’t going to get Olympics calls, but were prepared to head out for family or personal vacations when hockey was shut down. They would lose out now from an Olympic cancellation … Nothing about COVID makes sense. The Nets welcoming back the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving makes less sense … One reason to believe in the Maple Leafs, as opposed to other years you might have believed: Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and Jack Campbell are all playing the best hockey of their lives. All at the same time. That can be difference-making … The player drafted before Kyle Beach in 2008 was Cody Hodgson and the player drafted after him in the first round was Tyler Myers. Myers has career earnings of $60 million US. Hodgson had career earnings of $30 million. While no one is giving out figures for the settlement in the abuse lawsuit with the Chicago Blackhawks, lawyers I spoke with estimated that a $10-million settlement wouldn’t be out of the question. Beach was one of four players drafted in the first round that year who never did play an NHL game. Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo were the best players selected that draft … Pascal Siakam has led the Raptors in scoring in just two of their wins this season, one fewer than rookie Scottie Barnes … While premium pricing plays with the math, the fact that the Leafs and Raptors will play to half-sized audiences for the immediate future will cost Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment some $21 million in lost revenue between now and Jan. 21. That number will obviously grow if the pandemic protocols remain in place longer than that. And to think, some people were worried about how much money the Argos lost this season.

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HEAR AND THERE

I have known many coaches who knew their time was up and just kept on working under miserable personal circumstances. Paul Maurice is the first I can think of who knew his time was up and decided to walk away. That says a lot about who Maurice is and how honest he is with himself and his employer. It’s too bad there aren’t more Paul Maurices in professional sports … The Florida Panthers never really replaced Joel Quenneville, who was essentially forced out, and they put long-time NHLer Andrew Brunette in charge as coach. They have a team capable of challenging for the Stanley Cup. If I had a choice between Maurice and Brunette as coach, I know who I’d be picking … Either the Raptors or the NBA should be refunding anyone who paid money for Saturday night’s Golden State game. The Warriors sent their top players home, including superstar Steph Curry. This is one of three tier-one games on the Raps’ variable ticket-pricing mode — the most expensive game of the season. You must pay big-time dollars to get a ticket to see what was essentially a G-League team … I heard a morning radio show the other day talking about Curry and his influence on all of sports. Then they asked the question: Who has been more influential? The conversation barely mentioned Wayne Gretzky, who entered an NHL with 16 teams, and when he left, it had 27 teams. He had a little something to do with that. Some days, I want to scream at my radio for the lack of context I hear … I thought of this after the Sonny Milano-Trevor Zegras goal: I once saw Pavel Bure behind the net, flip the puck to himself, and then in one quick motion score. Like, he was two people instead of one … If the Ottawa Redblacks are considering Duane Forde as general manager, shouldn’t the Argos be considering him, also, to work alongside Pinball Clemons? … At the 30-game mark of the NHL season, the MVP is not Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl: It’s Alexander Ovechkin … And it’s a two-man race in the NBA for MVP: Curry or Kevin Durant?

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SCENE AND HEARD

Never mind rule changes, the CFL needs roster stability more than anything else in this upcoming off-season. The Grey Cup champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers have 49 free agents. The East champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats have 34. Nothing is less fan-friendly than having players move around this easily. The league should consider going back to naturalized players: If an American plays a specific number of seasons for one team, then he would switch from American to Canadian. That would make the league stronger and rosters more stable … I always wondered how the late Don Matthews would do as an NFL head coach? He almost got hired once in New Orleans when the Saints picked Mike Ditka ahead of him. Now I wonder, would an NFL team consider Mike O’Shea after back-to-back championships in Winnipeg? It didn’t work out well for Marc Trestman in Chicago but Bud Grant and Marv Levy, who made their names coaching in the CFL, took their teams to eight combined Super Bowls in Minnesota and Buffalo … The longer it goes between the four straight Buffalo Bills’ trips to the Super Bowl — it’s 28 years now — the more impressive those four AFC titles look in retrospect … Why did the Ticats give up the single point off a kickoff late in the fourth quarter on Grey Cup on Sunday? That decision probably cost them the game … I love the fact that the Jacksonville Jaguars, who threw all of that money at the less-than-competent and bombastic Urban Meyer, now want to get out of paying him the final four years on the deal, because of cause. I wonder: What was cause, hiring him or firing him? … Coaches don’t win football games as much as they lose them. On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Chargers lost primarily because of rookie coach Brandon Staley’s red-zone decision-making … It isn’t often you can call the CFL lucky, but you can right now: They got through a season, had just one game rescheduled, played a Grey Cup in December in great weather at Hamilton and didn’t have to deal with the restrictions for arenas and stadiums that came in after their season was over.

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AND ANOTHER THING

I am willing to have my life disrupted by COVID-19. I am happy to get all of the appropriate vaccines and wear my mask regularly and properly. I am pleased to stay home. Those restrictions, I can deal with. What I can’t deal with is having fantasy football playoffs interrupted. And not a single doctor on television is commenting on that … Ray Ferraro is the Ovechkin of hockey broadcasters. The older he gets, the better he gets … Is Succession better than The Wire? That’s been the talk in my house lately … Part of the charm of any Olympic Games is life in the Athlete’s Village and, with that, the ability to take in the culture of a new city and country. The way athletes will be locked down in Beijing between competitions will take away so much from the personal experience. I went to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Games. It was entirely memorable. Those going for the Winter Games won’t get the same freedoms we had 14 years ago … Something to look forward to in January: The exceptional Chris Jones (not the Argos’ defensive co-ordinator) has a new book coming out. It’s called The Eye Test, a case for human creativity in the age of analytics. I can’t wait to read it … If all of the COVID problems in Ontario are Doug Ford’s doing, is the premier also responsible for the Omicron outbreaks in Great Britain, France, Italy and Denmark? It’s the holiday season. Can we take a moment and please stop fighting with each other? … This is how great a year it was for Canadian athletes: Amazing competitors such as Marie-Phillip Poulin, Leylah Fernandez, Brooke Henderson, and Penny Oleksiak barely got a mention in athlete of the year conversation … Happy birthday to Victor Hedman (31), Jim Clancy (66), Ronald Acuna Jr. (24), Charles Oakley (58), Warren Sapp (49), Kerry Carter (41), Craig Biggio (56), Alex DeBrincat (24), Kevin McHale (64), Matt Stajan (38), Trish Stratus (45) and Stone Cold Steve Austin (56) … And hey, whatever became of Jeff Finger?

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ssimmons@postmedia.com
twitter.com/simmonssteve

COLLAROS AWARDS A MIRROR OF THE TIMES IN THE CFL

Zach Collaros won the Most Outstanding Player award in the Canadian Football League this season and followed it up by being awarded the MVP in the Grey Cup game.

That puts him on a very exclusive list of those winning the MOP and the championship game MVP in the same season. The names he now joins include Doug Flutie (three times) and Russ Jackson, two of the greatest players in CFL history.

But no one looks at Collaros as an all-time great, nor should they, and therein is one of the many problems now facing the CFL. If Collaros is the best player in the game, good enough to win the biggest of awards during the season and then culminating with a Grey Cup MVP, what does that say for the rest of the league?

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What does that say for the talent level we’re seeing today in the CFL?
When Flutie won the MVP in his last Grey Cup in 1997, he was followed in the passing statistics by Jeff Garcia, Tracy Ham, Danny McManus, Damon Allen and Anthony Calvillo – all of them all-time greats. That year, the leading receivers in the league were Milt Stegall, Mookie Mitchell, Pinball Clemons, Darren Flutie. All in the Hall of Fame.

It isn’t Zach Collaros fault that he isn’t considered a great quarterback. He is what he is. He has quarterbacked Winnipeg to back-to-back championships. Others who have done that include Flutie, Calvillo, Warren Moon, Jackson and Kenny Ploen. It’s an amazing list. Collaros is the best the CFL has right now. And the trouble is, when compared with what we’ve seen before, other years, other eras, that’s just not good enough.

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VANVLEET HAS TURNED HIMSELF INTO SOMETHING SPECIAL

There is a grounded intelligence and stability to Fred VanVleet that is worthy of more than applause.

If he is not among the most level-headed and competitive of all Toronto athletes, he is certainly on a shortlist of them – with thoughts and sensibilities that seem beyond his 27-years or his six seasons of play in the NBA with the Raptors.

It isn’t just the scholarship that VanVleet has recently established for Black or indigenous students at the University of Toronto that says something about him. It’s how he carries himself every day. It’s how he operates as part player, part-coach and part-mentor with the Raptors. It’s the maturity and emotional maturity he brings to work every day, expecting to be pushed and to push himself, the way he has had to push himself to achieve his entire life.

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This may be a storybook ending for VanVleet, now as a wealthy and successful NBA player, from the undrafted and undersized beginning. But it didn’t start out that way. And it could have easily turned, the way it has turned for so many young people around Rockford, Illinois. This is one of America’s most crime-filled cities. VanVleet lost his father to gunfire, from a drug-related crime.

What were the odds he would turn out special? What were the odds he would become a voice of more than reason and of political substance while becoming a fine NBA player? Everything about VanVleet is beating the odds — and everything about him now seems to be about giving something back.

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