"I had no father to pass down the history of those teams," he says, though his mother did remarry when he was a teenager and they moved to the Island. With franchise teams he found he "could start from the beginning and no one would know more about his teams than he did himself." It made him self-contained and compartmentalized, and he remains so to this day.
"It was the ultimate coping mechanism," he concedes.
Bettman was 13 when his biological father died, leaving money that eventually helped the youngster go to Cornell University, where he studied labour relations and later went into law. This, plus his love of sports, took him to the National Basketball Association and, on Feb. 1, 1993, he became head of the NHL. Only Frank Calder (1917-43) and Clarence Campbell (1946-77) have served longer.
Life has changed dramatically from that little apartment in Queen's. He and Shelli live in upscale Saddle River, N.J., where they raised three children and now have their two grandchildren temporarily living with them while eldest daughter Lauren's house is under construction.
When he travels, it is with security - a reality that began during the earlier 1994 half-season lockout when player Chris Chelios angrily said Bettman should worry about his family and own well-being, as some crazed fan or a player "might take matters into their own hands."
He still ignites anger, though such veiled threats are no longer spoken. But he also inspires enough loyalty that senior staff have largely stayed with him over the years and the various league owners - traditionally individualistic and at times difficult - have stuck by him despite occasional flare-ups.
The greatest example of owner solidarity under Bettman concerns the situation in Phoenix, where the Coyotes have bounced from box-office disaster to the courts to several different potential ownership deals. It was Bettman who convinced the owners that the league itself had to buy the team to prevent Balsillie from taking over the franchise and moving it.
"All sports is at risk if you can't determine who can be a partner and where your franchises are located," Bettman says, "because those are the two most important decisions that any sports league has to make."
While Bettman is master of the stock answers that usually match, word for word, what he said months earlier, he can at times become animated and spontaneous, even angry. Accuse the league of duplicity on any issue - such as not caring enough to act properly on head shots - or accuse him of sabotaging the potential deals with Balsillie for personal reasons, and he leaps to his own and the league's defence.
"Don't challenge my integrity," he says, voice rising. "This is what we do. This is what I do and [deputy commissioner]Bill Daly does and [league disciplinarian]Colin Campbell does. It is what we do and we do it with passion. You can't function if you blow with the wind.
"Why would you do anything but the right thing, or at least what you believe to be the right thing?"