On the day he officially took office as the NHL’s first commissioner – Feb. 1, 1993 – Gary Bettman was asked about his goals and mandate for guiding the league into the 21st century. Two months earlier, Bettman had been hired and introduced during a tumultuous board of governors meeting in Florida that also provided an expansion surprise – two new teams were to be added to the NHL, Anaheim and Florida. Two respected companies, the Disney Corporation and Blockbuster Video, were climbing aboard to help expand the NHL’s footprint to additional non-traditional markets.
The NHL had been something of an old boys’ club for years, stuck firmly in the past. Suddenly, it was venturing down an ambitious path with a new leader in place. Bettman – confident, glib, elfin and chatty – issued a de facto mission statement that first day on job; his priority would be to turn the focus away from labour issues being pushed by an increasingly militant Players’ Association.
Bettman would require “a good collective bargaining agreement and a stable relationship with the players, so fans don’t have to read about potential strikes and lockouts and the like,” he said at the time. “It means you run your business in a business-like way, so people don’t have to read about owners, or commissioners or labour leaders, all they read about is the hockey players doing wonderful things on the ice.
“I am committed to eliminating, to the extent possible, the distractions and focusing the attention on the game.”
Bettman’s era has brought some important positive changes to the league. Revenues have quintupled in size and player payrolls followed suit. The NHL played a series of regular-season games in Europe and Japan, broadening its global appeal. It created the successful Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game played on Jan. 1 that has caught the imagination of the U.S. TV viewing public. Television revenues have grown significantly as have league sponsorship deals. He helped stabilize wobbly franchises in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa through the Canadian currency-assistance program and enabled Minnesota and Winnipeg to get their franchises back.
Still, Bettman’s legacy will be forever coloured by the rancour and animosity of three lockouts. During the second, in 2004-05, the NHL became the only major professional sports league to lose an entire season to a labour dispute. So in spite of salary growth, many players regard him as a villain.
“The hockey has grown a lot in every which way so I think for the most part, he has been very successful – and obviously, we all appreciate that,” said the Anaheim Ducks’ Teemu Selanne, one of only a handful to play during Bettman’s entire reign.
“We – the players – are very lucky to have the lifestyle that we have. But if you ask any player, nobody’s happy that he also had three work stoppages. Obviously, that’s the only minus we are looking at from his part.”
In 1993-94, following Bettman’s first full season on the job, NHL revenues amounted to $732-million and annual player salaries averaged $558,000. By 2011-12, revenues had nearly quintupled to $3.3-billion, and players now earn an average $2.55-million.
“If you look around at 20 years of Gary Bettman and say, ‘who benefited?’ you can start by looking at it from the players’ side,” said Larry Quinn, the former Buffalo Sabres president. “When I started, the highest-paid guy on the Sabres was making $650,000 a year and I remember, that was considered a lot of money.”
Yet during this last standoff, players took pains to single out Bettman’s lockout strategy. While no one implied a threat to Bettman’s health as did the Detroit Red Wings’ Chris Chelios during the first lockout, the animosity and distrust poured out.
The Florida Panthers’ Kris Versteeg said Bettman and his second-in-command, Bill Daly, had been “polluting” the game for years. Detroit Red Wings’ defenceman Ian White: “Personally, I think he’s an idiot.” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews: “This seems to be our commissioner’s bread-and-butter; it’s almost like he is excited to take away hockey from the fans and the players just because he can.”
When the lockout ended with the NHLPA ratifying a new collective agreement on Jan. 12, Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said: “Obviously, he had something in his head and he was going to see how far he could take it. So there’s really no going up against Gary, when he has something in his head.”