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The story of Ayn Rand as NHL commissioner.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It was a surprise when Gary Bettman retired in July 2016, but only just.  After twenty-three years and three lockouts, Bettman was tired of the game, and to judge by the boos that rained down on him during Cup presentations, the game was tired of him.

Despite the growth in Bettman’s tenure, many players and franchises were dissatisfied.  The NHL operated as a cumbersome feudalistic cartel, its rules and regulations forming a straitjacket on players and teams alike.  The league craved a new commissioner—one who would break the bonds holding the league down and back.  A committed visionary.  A true thinker.

Ayn Rand met all of these qualifications, except that she died in 1982.  With a cocktail made from the blood of Jaromir Jagr, however, league physicians reanimated the libertarian icon to her former energy and verve.  With the consent of the league and the Players’ Association, Mrs. Rand was given absolute authority to reform the league as she saw fit.

Here is what happened next.

1.  Welcome to the Jungle

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From: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

To: Commissioner Rand

9:02 AM, July 18th, 2016

Good morning, Commissioner!

I just wanted to say again how happy I, and the rest of the league office, are to have you here.  I know under your leadership we can reach new and greater heights of success.  I would be very interested to know your plans for the upcoming season.

Sincerely,

Bill

P.S.: We met only briefly during the initial reception this weekend, so I have attached my photo to help you recognize me.

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From: Commissioner Rand

To: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

9:45 AM, July 18th, 2016

Hello Mr. Bill:

My plans are as follows.

1. The abolition of the salary cap, perhaps the most blatantly anti-capitalistic device ever instituted in what is allegedly a free country.

2. The abolition of the draft.  How did you people get away with all these constraints on freedom to contract?

3. The abolition of revenue sharing.  Your league has parasites feasting on it.  You negotiated a clause to feed them.  This is madness.

4. The abolition of the minimum contract age.  Youths may need nannies.  They do not need a nanny state.

5. The abolition of the players’ union.  Also the referees’ union.  Also the janitors’ union.

I think we should be able to do this by lunch.

Cordially,

Commissioner Rand

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From: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

To: Commissioner Rand

10:12 AM, July 18th, 2016

Dear Commissioner Rand:

This is a very drastic set of changes.  With respect, Commissioner, I’m not sure this is a good idea.

Bill

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From: Commissioner Rand

To: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

10:15 AM, July 18th, 2016

Oh I’m sorry, are you the free market?  Is that why you know best?  Because you’re the free market?

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From: Commissioner Rand

To: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

10:16 AM, July 18th, 2016

Because I mean, if you are, you should tell me.

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From: Commissioner Rand

To: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

10:17 AM, July 18th, 2016

Tell me if you’re the free market, Bill.

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From: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

To: Commissioner Rand

10:20 AM, July 18th, 2016

I am not the free market, Commissioner.

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From: Commissioner Rand

To: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

10:23 AM, July 18th, 2016

Free market is probably less bald anyway

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From: Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly

To: Commissioner Rand

10:25 AM, July 18th, 2016

2. The Gilded Age

"When we got McDavid and Karlsson, that was when I began to think we might really do it," recalls former Leafs executive Kyle Dubas.  "We knew we had a great team, and at that point we weren’t even spending $200 million yet.  Babcock starting smiling to himself all the time, and this was a guy who normally looked like he’d just heard his dog was dying.  The city could feel we were on the verge of something."

Dubas smiles modestly down at his jewelry-covered hands.  "My wife insisted I had to leave the wedding ring where it was even after I got the tenth one.  I normally keep them in the safe, but tonight’s Fight Cl—I mean, nothing.  Anyway, back in those early days we were still building.  Lou was like the most menacing kid in the world’s biggest candy store."

His voice takes on a boyish enthusiasm that suits his still-youthful good looks.  "I remember one time, the GM out in Seattle—remember Seattle?  God, that didn’t work out at all—tried to get into a bidding war with us over some player.  Lou sent him the player’s jersey wrapped around a fish.  The guy actually thought we would drown the player rather than let them sign him away from us!  I mean, Lou probably knew guys who would have done it, but…"  A brief expression of uneasy realization crosses Dubas’ face.  "Wait.  Uh…oh wow.  Anyway, we won the bidding war, is the point.  We won all the bidding wars.  Once we started scouting the peewee leagues, the rest of the NHL didn’t really have a chance.  Remember that centre from Saskatchewan?  McKayddyn McKay?  Signed him when he was twelve.  Didn’t matter.  After the reserve lists went out back in ’18, we would have three, four hundred players under contract at any given time.  Some of them weren’t even hockey players.  We signed Rihanna to a PTO because she thought it was funny.  It turned into a whole thing, teams tried to sign pop singers because they thought it was part of our winning culture.  The Sens somehow ended up with that ‘Somebody I Used to Know’ guy."

The wizened one-time golden boy takes on a wistful tone as he remembers those heady days.  "You have to understand, we were kings in this league.  If there was talent, we bought it.  Simple as that.  When I started out in the OHL, half the meetings seemed to end with, ‘if only we had this, we could do this.’  The dynasty Leafs?  There was never an ‘if only.’  Always a ‘yes we can.’  It was like Obama in 2008."  Dubas gestures to a wall full of photographs from the era.  The old Leafs’ front office is front and centre, surrounded by Dubas and several induction classes’ worth of Hall of Famers.  "It was pure magic.  Those were the greatest days of my life."

The Leafs' front office at its annual gala.

The magic, though, took a toll.

The small cabin couldn’t be farther removed, geographically or economically, from Dubas’ opulent downtown office.  The sternly moral phrase "Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires" is emblazoned on a sign on the door.  A knock brings a haggard face to the door crack.

"Good morning," growls Carlton, in a grim approximation of politeness.

Once seated in his den, the formerly glamourous bear casts his mind back to the time he was the most popular mascot in North America.  "You have to understand, when you’re a mascot, you have to be on all the time. You’re bringing the excitement to the crowd, and you’re matching their excitement when they’re up.  And with the team so dominant, the excitement—well, you remember when they closed down Front Street for four days after the fifth Cup.  It was like a Roman orgy in that town.  And I was the face.  I brought the energy."

It’s hard to believe now, but this tired old ursus once brought energy like no one ever had.  "I mean, with all the money floating around and the demands of the job, you could see it coming.  It started out just bumping a rail on the weekends, a little pick-me-up before the game.  Before long, though, I had more snow in my face than any bear south of Nunavut.  I was coked-out for about three years, all championships, just wired all the time."  Carlton sighs, though being a bear, it comes out as a deafening roar.

"The warning signs were all there," says Carlton.

"You have to hit rock bottom, they say.  I sure did.  I headed out of my condo after spending eighteen hours with a she-bear whose name I didn’t know, listening to Jock Jams on loop.  Somehow I wound up blind-firing a t-shirt cannon into a school field trip outside the arena.  I don’t even"—he roar-sighs again.  "I hit one kid in the face, and he had to wear an eyepatch for six months after.  I visited him in the hospital, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, Carrrrrrrlton, now I get to be a pirate!  It’s okay!’  But it wasn’t okay.  I wasn’t okay."

Carlton credits the supportive Leafs organization and his family for helping him get clean.  "My cousin Shades came up from Orlando and lived with me for a year.  Didn’t say much, but just having him there really helped.  But I couldn’t go back to my old job.  They offered, they said, look, we’re going to win again, do you want to be there?  And I just knew I couldn’t do it.  By then, it was clear things were going to have to change in the league, too."

"We knew it couldn’t last forever," admits Dubas.  "You could see the danger signs early.  A couple of teams contract, everyone says, ‘well, Arizona wasn’t working out anyway.’  We didn’t mind.  We had our new building by then, that coliseum we built on Toronto Island, and we were selling out sixty thousand seats a game.  But we got richer and richer, and other teams were really starting to struggle.  We even offered to bail out the Minnesota Wild, but the commissioner just read us ‘If You Give A Mouse A Cookie’ and then asked us if we believed in capitalism.  And I mean, yeah, the Ryan Suter contract was really stupid.  So that was kind of on them.  But…well, then things really started to get out of control."

3.  On The Precipice

4. The Conscience Of A Hairless Man

(Scene: A dimly-lit house. The quiet and the near-darkness hint that everyone in the house should be asleep, but as yet not everyone is.  A woman in an elegant bathrobe waits in front of an imagined television along the fourth wall.

There is a turning of a key in the lock, and a man enters.  His smooth, egg-like head only heightens the expression of weary anxiety painted on his face.  The woman turns to him sympathetically.)

MRS. DALY: How was Montreal?

MR. DALY: Not great, to be honest.  That city always smells literally like vomit.

MRS. DALY: Ugh.  Come have a seat.

MR. DALY: (sitting) But I wish my only problem was Puke City.  The league’s in trouble, honey.  If nothing  changes, this season could be our last season.

MRS. DALY: It’s gotten that bad?

MR. DALY: Half the teams are broke, and only a few are making any real money.  It was one thing when it was franchises like Ottawa, but now we’re losing teams people actually care about.

MRS. DALY: Oh no…can anything be done to turn it around?

MR. DALY: (in frustration) Maybe, but it would take a brilliant commissioner to do it at this point.

MRS. DALY: You could start by immediately reinstituting revenue sharing at a level to maintain basic solvency.  The larger franchises will recognize that the competitive imbalance and market decay are now starting to damage their own revenue streams.  The value of the next North American television deal is going to be paltry and short-term, if there’s even a major network willing to pay for it, and the big-city leadership will recognize that—either right off the bat or when someone puts a financial projection in front of them.  There’s still enough money being made that it should be possible to consolidate the existing franchises and rejuvenate them within three to eight years.  It’ll be a while before you’re looking at expansion, and being the fourth-place major league may be damaging to egos around the league office, but there’s no reason why a measure of prudence combined with a willingness to act forcefully can’t at least stop the bleeding.

MR. DALY: Uh…uh, yeah, that’s what I thought.

MRS. DALY: Just spitballing.

MR. DALY: (sighing) But even if that’s doable, we need someone who’ll do it.  Commissioner Rand will never go for revenue sharing.  She thinks of it as socialism.

MRS. DALY: It sort of is, but a little socialism can be a good thing.

MR. DALY: The last time someone said that to her face she had him fired out of a cannon.

MRS. DALY: Someone is going to have to stand up to her, Bill.  It can’t go on like this.

MR. DALY: But who?  (with dawning realization) Me?  But I’m a second banana.  I always have been.  Plus I’m very bald.

MRS. DALY: Don’t you ever talk about yourself that way.  Being a great sports executive isn’t about (running a hand over his dome-like scalp) what’s up here.  It’s about what’s in here.  (taps his chest)

MR. DALY: (with growing resolve) You’re right.  I have to do it.

(They kiss with the tender eroticism of mature romance.  The curtain falls.)

5.  Surely You Do Not Want Jones To Come Back?

The tension at the meeting was palpable.  Commissioner Rand sat alone, at her insistence, facing down Bill Daly and two associates.

"So it has come to this," the Commissioner declared with the overstated, grim ponderousness that makes her novels unreadable for more than a few pages.

"I'm afraid so," replied Daly.  "We think a change of direction is needed for the long-term health of the league, and the Board of Governors agrees."

"Look at where this league was when I started.  It was a mire!  The strong were constrained to keep the mediocre alive.  The league was unwilling to genuinely compete.  Count how many offer sheets were signed in the three years before I took office.  None!  Because your league was wrapped in a security blanket of cowardice for the benefit of tired and incompetent men."

"But the league sustained itself," countered Daly.  "We had thirty teams capable of functioning, and a viable players' union."

"Arizona was 'capable' only in the worst misuse of the word, Mr. Bill. It was kept afloat and at sea when drowning would have been a mercy.  And as for the players--the draft!  The ELC system!  The salary cap! Who benefited?  Only the owners.  Be honest: my capitalism did more for player salaries than the NHLPA ever achieved."

"For a while, until teams began signing tweens to thirty-five year contracts just to lock them up," retorted Daly.  "But more than that—a league is of necessity a different economic system than ordinary capitalism, and it has to be permitted certain devices to maintain a degree of competitive balance."

"But most of what you did was just to save the owners money, under the guise of competitive balance and cost certainty," Rand pointed out.

"Well, yeah, duh," Daly acknowledged.  "We’re not stupid.  But going all the way in the other direction has been a disaster."

"A disaster!" the commissioner sputtered.  "A disaster.  Well.  If freedom, justice, and hard work are a disaster—then I suppose I am.  You may have your league, Mr. Bill.  It is not one I will be a part of any longer."

With libertarian flair, now ex-Commissioner Rand whirled for the door, and her reign was over.

Epilogue

Under the leadership of the Daly family, the league gradually regained its footing.  The Leafs no longer won every Cup by default, although they won often enough that everybody finally shut up about the Habs having the greatest history in the league.  Many of the old regulations were reinstated, the league’s lust for liberty having been sated at last.

And Commissioner Rand?  There have been no confirmed sightings of her since she left office, though many have been rumoured.  Some say she died, though the jury is still out on whether any being with the blood of Jagr can be destroyed.  Some say she moved to Texas.  And some say she wanders the highways of the land, searching for a league that truly believes in freedom.