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Sid Hartman: Bettman lifting profile of NHL

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • October 23, 2008 - 7:35 AM

They had the Lester Patrick Award presentations Wednesday at the St. Paul Hotel, where Brian Burke, Phil Housley, Bob Naegele Jr. and Ted Lindsay were honored for their contributions to hockey in the United States.

Burke, Housley and Naegele have local connections. Burke, the general manager of the 2010 men's Olympic hockey team, grew up in Edina. Housley was a high school star at South St. Paul before becoming the NHL career games and points leader for U.S.-born players. Naegele was the former owner of the Wild.

The presence of NHL Comissioner Gary Bettman at the function got me thinking how fortunate the major sports are now with some of the best commissioners ever. The NFL used to be way ahead of the other sports because of great guidance from Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and now Roger Goodell to make the sport No. 1 in fan interest and exposure.

Until Bettman took over, hockey was a mess. Bud Selig came in to take over baseball and it's never been more successful. The same is true of David Stern in the NBA.

Bettman had the toughest job of the four commissioners, with the sport floundering when he took over after being Stern's right-hand man.

Not all the franchises are having the success the Wild is enjoying, but the NHL has increased attendance, revenue and interest in the sport since Bettman became commissioner in 1993.

"We're off to a real good start; attendance is strong, our games have been good, goal scoring is up a little bit," Bettman said. "We're coming off of what may have been our strongest season ever, which prior to last season, the season before that was probably our best season ever. ... So the league is solid, the game on the ice is good and our fans are the best."

Bettman said league attendance is running 4 percent above last year.

One of the great things Bettman talked about was all the new stars in the game, such as Penguins standout Sidney Crosby, and new buildings such as Xcel Energy Center and Pittsburgh's new arena being built to open for the 2010-11 season.

Bettman was asked about the possibility of the Wild losing its best player, Marian Gaborik.

"I never comment on a particular player and team situation, because you never know exactly what's going on," Bettman said. "But under our [salary cap] system, both the teams and the players have choices to make. The money is a finite pool. Overall we don't pay more than a certain percentage to the players, no team can exceed the salary cap, and so teams have to decide exactly what a player is worth in the context of the overall team that they're putting together.

"Players have an opportunity to decide where they want to play because there is more liberal free agency. So in any given situation, there are a lot of factors that have to be taken into account and ultimately the fans will judge how the team is put together as a whole and how it performs as a team.

"The collective bargaining agreement enabled us to address some pretty fundamental problems that we had. The good news is all of our teams can now afford to be competitive, and we've never had better competitive balance. No matter what team you root for, there's hope that your team can make the playoffs."

Game sparked offers

The Gophers football team had zero interest in senior defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg, a recent Big Ten co-defensive player of the week, as a high school recruit until he had a big game in Glencoe-Silver Lake's 21-0 victory over Delano in the Class 3A championship game at the Metrodome in 2003.

"We all had a pretty good game," VanDeSteeg said. "I had three sacks, a bunch of plays, and I put a pretty big hit on this quarterback. That's kind of when ... I started getting offers for scholarships."

VanDeSteeg first heard from St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth and then came the big surprise, a scholarship offer from the Gophers and then-coach Glen Mason.

"I had a tough time qualifying," VanDeSteeg said. "Obviously I didn't know that the NCAA was as strict as it was, and I had to take an extra class in the summer to get eligible to be able to clear for the [NCAA] Clearinghouse. [The Gophers] offered me a scholarship and then they helped me proceed and understand the NCAA rules and what I had to do to get qualified."

VanDeSteeg is an example of a student with marginal grades getting admitted to college and going on to do great things. VanDeSteeg is going to graduate with good grades only because he got an opportunity many don't get.

Henderson contributes

Raymond Henderson was hailed as a big addition to the Gophers football team when, after he was dismissed from the team at Tennessee, transferred to Minnesota before the 2006 season.

Big things were expected of Henderson, but he has had some health problems. He lost 25 pounds because of a heat-related illness during the summer of 2007.

But last week, Henderson was named defensive scout player of the week. "Ray is doing a great job and his attitude is great," Gophers coach Tim Brewster said. "He hasn't been on the field, and he's a guy who was a highly acclaimed transfer from Tennessee.

"He is doing what he can to get on the field and help us win some football games. He is doing what he can do."

Jottings

No person has ever deserved the ABCA (American Baseball Coaches Association) Assistant Coach of the Year award more than Gophers assistant Rob Fornasiere. Entering his 24th year overall with the Gophers and 17th year as assistant head coach to John Anderson, Fornasiere is a big reason for the success of the program. He is one of the best recruiters in the country, and I can't believe there is better baseball coaching combination in the country than Anderson and Fornasiere.

Outstanding Wayzata wrestler Danny Zilverberg, who finished third at 125 pounds in the Class 3A wrestling meet last year, has committed to Minnesota. He will join his brother, David, who is a redshirt freshman. Danny was a USA Wrestling Cadet Folkstyle national champion in 2006.

Look for outstanding Blue Earth Area golfer Jon Trasamar to commit to Minnesota. ... The Gophers have added another new football academic counselor, Chris McNeeley.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast once a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com

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