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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, in New York. (Associated Press)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, in New York.

(Associated Press)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

After 20 years, Gary Bettman is still standing Add to ...

Toews spoke personally to Bettman last Saturday before the Blackhawks’ season-opening win over the Los Angeles Kings, but would only say their conversation was “brief and positive.”

“I’m focused on the game,” Toews said. “The other stuff doesn’t matter anymore.”

Inherited a mess

The NHL that Bettman assumed from his predecessor, interim president Gil Stein, was operated as little more than a cottage industry.

“It was under-capitalized. It was over-expanded. It was over-leveraged,” said Marc Ganis, president and founder of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. “You had horrible due diligence. You had procedures and diligence that were failures. You had insider dealings and ... as the numbers got bigger, it was collapsing onto itself as a black hole.

“You have to look at it [and ask], ‘What if he had not done everything he did?’ The answer?

“Had it continued down the same path, the National Hockey League would have imploded,” Garis said. “It is a cleaner, stronger, more financially solid business operation – with better prospects for the future. All of those things were very difficult to achieve. Did he do everything right? Of course not. Nobody does. But he stepped into a very difficult situation.”

Bettman, a lawyer, was recruited from the NBA’s front office by Los Angeles Kings’ owner Bruce McNall, who had been elected chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, replacing Bill Wirtz. For years, the triumvirate of Wirtz, NHL president John Ziegler Jr. and Players’ Association executive director Alan Eagleson controlled power. Wirtz did not believe in televising home games; Ziegler’s essential maxim was, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’; Eagleson was eventually convicted of mail fraud in the United States and embezzlement in Canada.

McNall sensed an opportunity for the NHL to grow the league out of its role as a regional sport.

The league also valued Bettman’s background as a labour negotiator because militancy in the NHLPA began to mushroom after Bob Goodenow replaced Eagleson; there had been a short 10-day player strike in March of 1991.

“What we were looking for at that time was, a) somebody who was able to solve the player-personnel mess we were going through at the time and b) because we had [Wayne] Gretzky [playing for the Los Angeles Kings], we were trying desperately to use him for expansion purposes,” McNall explained. “And the main reason for expansion was to get a major television deal – because it’s hard to get a national television deal in the United States, when you only have a couple of cities on the West Coast and the rest are all in Canada and on the East Coast.

“So those were the goals. Gary was well aware of the issues and I thought he was the right guy to do it. That’s why I thought it was a good hire at the time.”

Two Canadian teams – the Winnipeg Jets and the Quebec Nordiques – were relocated to Phoenix and Colorado, respectively, early in Bettman’s tenure, but according to the late Harley Hotchkiss, McNall’s successor as the chairman of the NHL board of governors, without Bettman’s intervention, more Canadian cities would have lost their franchises during the dark days of the currency crisis. Under Bettman’s watch, the NHL expanded to 30 teams from 26, with one of those teams – the Atlanta Thrashers – moving to Winnipeg last year. Moreover, Bettman has spent countless hours trying to stabilize the Phoenix Coyotes ownership.

Not going anywhere

Bettman signed a five-year contract in 1993 and has had his contract extended three times since then, including once back in November of 2011. There was speculation that Bettman would either step aside or be pushed out once the lockout ended, but Jeremy Jacobs, the current chairman of the board, reaffirmed the board’s support on the day the governors ratified the CBA.

“I’m looking forward to continuing to grow this game, both on and off the ice, as we have over the last 20 years,” Bettman said then. “I think the opportunities are great and I’m excited to be a part of them.”

Many general managers expect Bettman to work until his 65th birthday, on June 12, 2017. Logically, he could announce his decision to retire then, but stay on for the 100th anniversary season in 2017.

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