I liked Gary Bettman even before I'd ever met him. We'd both gone to Cornell University, for a start. And when I was president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I dealt with him often, most directly in National Hockey League governors' meetings.
Most of the governors were team owners, who are rich and important in their communities. They are used to having their own way, and do not give that up easily. To suggest that directing them is akin to herding cats is to give cats a bad name.
But at the front table at these meetings was this expressive, bug-eyed, bundle of nerve endings – quick-witted, aggressive, smart and well-prepared. There was never any doubt who commanded that room.
Being NHL commissioner is a tough job. Mr. Bettman presides over a league, but in many ways he presides over a sport. If Canadian NHL teams aren't doing well, on the ice or off, the hundreds of thousands of kids and adults who play recreationally don't seem to be doing as well. And because we have made hockey a metaphor for Canada, at those times the country doesn't seem as healthy, either.
So Mr. Bettman has a responsibility that baseball, football and basketball commissioners do not have.
In the U.S., Mr. Bettman has to try to make hockey matter for more than just an intensely dedicated minority, and beyond the north and northeast. For Americans, it's Major League Baseball and the National Football League first, then the National Basketball Association, and then … the NHL. The result is a perpetual struggle to matter.
This means having teams in parts of the U.S. where the main aim has to be simple survival. Ask any chief executive officer what he or she would do if one-quarter of his or her stores were dragging down the others.
The answer: Close them and focus on the business's strengths. But Mr. Bettman can't do that.
I've disagreed with him at times, but I've found him right far more often than wrong. Of all the NHL presidents or commissioners I've seen, as a player, an administrator and a fan, Gary Bettman is easily the best.
Today, though, he faces a bigger challenge: head injuries. He has seen the dangerous mess of the past few years, with the premature deaths of former players, suicides and concussions that have ended or shortened careers. Now, there's the grave uncertainty over the future of his league's biggest star, Sidney Crosby.
All through it, I was sure there would come a point where Mr. Bettman would say, “Enough.” He would intervene on the issue of head injuries as forcibly as he has on franchise and collective-bargaining matters. Instead, he has left it to others – first to Colin Campbell, an NHL executive formerly in charge of player safety, and now to former star player Brendan Shanahan.
A good lawyer gets inside his client's position, tests and challenges it, shapes it where it needs to be shaped, and comes to know it, and embody it, as well as the client himself. Mr. Bettman is a very good lawyer. His relentless rigour gives him his confidence, his presence and posture. He needs to know he's the smartest guy in the room. That's what allows him to herd his cats.
But when he can't quite get inside his client as deep as he needs to go, his manner changes. He knows how much hockey means to Canadians, but, as an American, he can't quite know. He knows how proud, almost warrior-like, hockey players see themselves, but as someone who has never played the game, he can't quite know.
Often criticized in Canada for being an American (and all that means to Canadians), in fact he has been a determined advocate for things Canadian. He knows that the NHL isn't strong and healthy unless hockey in Canada is strong and healthy. On matters Canadian, he is respectful and deferential. He listens. About on-ice matters, he is the same: He listens to his “hockey guys.”
The problem is that his hockey guys are so immersed in the game they have loved and played all of their lives, so respectful of its traditions, that they haven't fully seen all that has changed. Shifts in technology, strategy and training have allowed now-bigger players to go faster, with more forceful impact. To Mr. Bettman's hockey guys, these are the natural evolutions of the game.
To the unintended consequences – more, and more serious, injuries – they have responded with efforts toward better protective equipment, better medical treatment and “tweaks” to the rules.
What they've missed is that technology, strategy and training, driven by the endless creativity of coaches, players, scientists and entrepreneurs, always outrun such moderate adjustments.
Better helmets, more muscular necks and shoulders, MRIs and Rule 48 haven't offered the answer to 220-plus-pound players moving 30 miles an hour. Not even close. But to intervene with anything else – with significant rule changes that would make the game be played in a more “head-smart” way – to them is unthinkable. That's not natural evolution; those are “unnatural intrusions.”