Gary Bettman’s 20th anniversary as the NHL’s commissioner will pass quietly today. Bettman, who took office on Feb. 1, 1993, declined interview requests to reflect on the ups and downs of his stormy tenure as the one-and-only commissioner in league history. Since the league was formed in 1917, five presidents preceded him as the de facto chief executive officer of the league – Frank Calder, Red Dutton, Clarence Campbell, John Ziegler Jr. and for a short interim period before Bettman took over, Gil Stein. Bettman is now third in longevity after Campbell, who served for 31 years and Calder for 26.
But if Bettman wasn’t talking, the man who hired him – Bruce McNall, the colorful former Los Angeles Kings’ owner and a one-term NHL chairman of the board – had a lot to say about his tenure, good and bad.
McNall, speaking from Los Angeles, was delightfully candid about a sport that he still cares deeply about.
“Remember, we were also going through a work stoppage, or a projected one, back then,” said McNall. “As chairman of the league, I had the responsibility to find a commissioner. I had a committee, one representative from each division, and we interviewed a number of people. All of them were competent CEOs from different companies, but they were not sports-oriented guys and certainly had no experience with lockouts and things of that nature.
“So I talked to David Stern (NBA president) and asked if he was interested in the job. He said no, but he said talk to Russ Granik or Gary Bettman (the No. 2 and 3 men in the NBA hierarchy). So I talked to Gary and I realized right away, for that moment in time, he was by far the best guy. He was familiar with sports and he knew about a lot of things. It wasn’t hard for me to convince my associates that he was the right guy – and he was unanimously approved.”
According to McNall, Bettman’s mandate was to get a U.S. national television deal and try to expand the NHL’s southern footprint. The NHL was a 26-team entity when Bettman took over, Anaheim and Florida having been granted expansion franchises, at the same December, 1992 board of governors meeting where Bettman was introduced. Bettman’s popularity through three lockouts has been consistently low, especially throughout Canada.
“He’s the little guy from New York who came from basketball,” said McNall. “If he was packaged a different way, it would be a whole different ballgame. He tends to get a little bit of the raw end of the deal because of that alone.
“Remember Gary is ultimately responsible to the owners and they are going to ultimately dictate what he does and doesn’t do. In the case of the lockout, remember a very small handful of teams made any money the last several years. Even the Kings didn’t make any money, even winning the Cup. So there wasn’t a lot of motivation for the owners – other than in the Canadian cities and a handful of the East Coast teams – to want to play. It was almost cheaper to lock the doors.
“So getting a 10-year deal, they were looking for a long-term deal to get something to stabilize things for the long term. Sad as it is, that’s the nature of the beast – and therefore, I think he accomplished the job they were looking for. In a way, it’s easy to blame Gary because fans only look to what they know and what they see. Either it’s greedy players – and they can’t understand why they’re making millions of dollars and it’s never enough – or it’ll be greedy owners – and they’re making millions of dollars and that’s never enough. I think it’s too simplistic to look at it that way. I think he did a pretty good job in all that.”
McNall was around a little last spring when his former team, the Kings, won the first Stanley Cup in their 45-year history. But they were a vastly different team than the one that went all the way to the 1993 Stanley Cup final, with the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Marty McSorley, Kelly Hrudey and others in the line-up. Those Kings were larger than life. The 2012 version of the team finished 29th in the NHL in scoring, and had a series of low-key personalities – goaltender Jonathan Quick, centre Anze Kopitar and team captain Dustin Brown – as the key ingredients. McNall believes it is one of the reasons that the NHL hasn’t taken hold in non-traditional markets, the way it has in Canada and the Eastern United States, where the cult of personality doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does in markets that require a little more razzle dazzle to sell the game.