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.”
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.
With the labour agreement in place until at least 2020, the question is whether he can grown the NHL to 32 teams from 30? Slotting eight teams in four conferences has long been the end game, but expansion has been delayed by a persistent need to extinguish brushfires around teams with financial issues.
Quinn believes putting a second team in the Greater Toronto Area area is “a logical step.” He also believes that expanding to Europe makes sense.
McNall has a far less optimistic view of the future. He does not see an onward and upward trajectory, but says the fault is with his original vision, not Bettman’s. According to McNall, his rush to bring in additional Sunbelt teams (Florida and Anaheim were added the day before Bettman was hired) was probably the wrong thing to do. McNall essentially recruited both new partners – Disney’s Michael Eisner in Anaheim and Blockbuster Video’s Wayne Huizenga in Florida – through personal relationships. At the time, the moves were universally applauded because it brought owners with real dollars in their pockets into the fold.
“I had lunch with Wayne [Gretzky] the other day and we were talking about it a little bit. Only a handful of those expansion teams are successful. Most of them are not,” McNall said. "So apparently, for any number of reasons, hockey doesn’t seem to want to transfer over into these non-indigenous areas.”
McNall also raised another issue relating to marketing – how hockey players are harder to sell to a larger national U.S. audience because they generally don’t want to stand out. He is not sure how that ethic can change, either.
“In basketball or football, you have a lot of characters in those sports,” McNall said. “You have a lot of personalities. Hockey doesn’t have a lot of personalities. They’re pretty boring guys. It’s hard to get them to be media darlings, like the NBA guys, which helps to drive sales and interest in smaller markets. Can you imagine a basketball player saying, ‘no, I don’t want to shoot the ball?’ It would never happen. In hockey, everybody’s a team guy.”
Quinn believes the product on the ice is holding the league back too. Despite improvement in the past five years, it still has a long way to go, with European soccer-style trapping a plague.
“I put that responsibility on Gary and the players,” he said. “They both need to collaborate on that and say, ‘Okay, how do we make this game truly exciting so it can keep with the other American sports?’ If I had to give Gary a mark below ‘A’ on anything, it might be that. Not that he hasn’t tried, but both groups have to do a lot more there.”
Meantime, while the NHL has taken steps to improve its health and safety record, there’s work to be done.
“They still have to come to grips with violence in the game,” Quinn said. “There’s a strong faction that wants to keep fighting. There’s a strong faction that doesn’t. The whole issue has to be wrestled with. The issue of concussions has to be wrestled with.”
Always an outsider
In assessing Bettman’s legacy, people struggle to separate the personal from the professional. Some will always consider him to be an outsider, never having been steeped in hockey culture. If Bettman were more Clinton-esque in stature and had that same charming, disarming manner in public, opposed to appearing stiff and guarded, maybe the perception of him would be different.
“There’s no question about that – which is again unfair,” Quinn said.
“I can tell you, he’s a very good communicator. He goes out of his way to communicate. The impression that’s created of him is this little guy who is holding onto power. That is completely not true. He shares information extremely well with his partners. He doesn’t exclude people. I found him to be a real pleasure to work with – and totally different than the stereotype that people often use with him.”
Quinn concluded: “On Gary overall, if you looked at every category and separated yourself from the personalities and said, ‘has this business grown over his tenure?’ There’s no question it has. Has he been able to solve a problem that hockey couldn’t for 40 or 50 years before him, which was to have national television exposure in the United States? Yes. Do they have a formula that’s fair for team owners and players? I think finally, yeah they do. Now getting there? A lot of eggs were broken. But I don’t know how you do it without it.”