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.
“The sport itself has changed,” said McNall. “A team that wins it (the Kings) basically has a bunch of grinders. It comes down to executing that style – and then having a good goaltender. Nobody wants to stand out. Not even Gretzky wanted to. He was almost embarrassed that he was getting so much attention.
“It doesn’t lend itself to the personalities everybody wants to see – whether it’s good guys or bad guys or characters. So I think it’s a problem ... You’d rather have Kobe (Bryant) or some guy with tattoos on his neck.”
If Bettman was talking about anything these days, it would likely be the ongoing struggles to find a new owner for the Phoenix Coyotes. Greg Jamison’s deal with Glendale city council officially fell apart at midnight Thursday night and though he expressed hope that something could eventually still be cobbled together, likely his best last chance to salvage the sale expired at the witching hour. Bettman’s official position on expansion or relocation doesn’t ever change much. Publicly, he’s been singing from the same essential playbook for years now: Until such time as the NHL can stabilize its current 30 franchises in their current locations, it isn’t looking to grow any further.
The league hasn’t added any new teams since the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild entered the fold back in the 2000-01 season, culminating a decade of wildly ambitious growth that also saw teams added in Atlanta, Nashville, Anaheim, Florida, Tampa Bay, Ottawa and San Jose. Additionally, franchises were transferred from Hartford to Carolina, Winnipeg to Phoenix and Quebec to Colorado, all in a span of 10 years.
On many levels, it was too much too soon and so, after all the cash grabs and ill-advised rush to grow, Bettman put a lid on it. In the past dozen years, there has been one change – Atlanta moving to Winnipeg two years ago. Bettman’s sole operating philosophy was to stabilize franchises where they were – most famously in Phoenix, but he helped out in Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and others during the hard times there.
For years, there were shifting sands undermining half-a-dozen franchises. Now, however, with the continued exception of Phoenix and perhaps Florida, there is reasonable stability in the league – and in some of the trouble spots, new ownership that can apparently weather the coming storms. Primarily, that is why you’re hearing whispers again about a 32-team league and how the NHL will eventually go down that road, but later, not sooner.
Now the NHL went to great lengths this week to dismiss Paul Kelly’s assertions that there were already discussions back in his days as the NHL players association boss (2007-2009) about the wheres and the hows of expansion. However, if you listen closely to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, you don’t hear him say “never” to expansion. You only hear him say “not imminently.”
So if you’re Markham, and trying to make a decision about the value of putting a shovel in the ground without any firm NHL commitment, you need to weigh the odds. You can reasonably expect that somebody in the next five to seven years is going to get the right to pay anywhere from $450 to $600-million to put a second team in Toronto. You can reasonably expect that if you have a state-of-the-art facility, open for business, the odds of you getting picked as the home of the second NHL team increase.
But – and this is a big but – while the league wants to see nice modern digs, what they care about is ownership. Somebody like David Thomson, the majority owner of the Winnipeg Jets, is attractive because of his great wealth and his desire to stay out of the spotlight. The perfect owner, in every way.
In the meantime, Bettman’s caution in holding off any anxious owners that wanted to expand to Toronto already can assure them that his delay will ultimately create a bigger pay day for the NHL down the road, as the appetite for the product in Canada seems to grow daily.
AROUND THE RINKS
The Phoenix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres is eligible to return to the line-up for Saturday’s date with the Dallas Stars after serving his suspension for concussing the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa with a hit to the head during the playoffs last year. Torres was originally suspended for 25 games by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, but had it reduced to 21 games in early July by commissioner Gary Bettman following an appeal. Torres served 13 games last spring, and eight more to start the 2012-13 season ...Thankfully, Hossa looks fully recovered and is off to a good scoring start (nine points in seven games), as is the Boston Bruins’ Nathan Horton, who missed 36 regular-season and seven playoff games last year, also because of a concussion. Horton had five points in six games, after being restored to his regular line, with David Krejci and Milan Lucic, which was a big hit for Boston during their 2011 Stanley Cup run ...Tyler Seguin, who led the Bruins with 29 goals last season, finally got his first the other night and coach Claude Julien noted to the Boston Globe it might have been because Seguin was “out of sync” after playing in Switzerland on the big ice during the lockout ... Equally out of sync: Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown, a 54-point scorer last year, who had managed just a single assist and a minus-five rating through his team’s first five games ... Nail Yakupov, the first player chosen in the 2012 entry draft, is paying immediate dividends for the Edmonton Oilers. Of Yakupov’s four goals, one came in the final five seconds of regulation against the Los Angeles Kings, which led to an overtime victory; while another came in OT vs. Phoenix ...The Calgary Flames may have had the strangest scheduling start to the season, playing only four games in the first 12 days, including a five-day break this past week, which permitted coach Bob Hartley to run a mini-training camp of sorts – not a bad thing for a team trying to adjust to a new coach. Things heat up from here: In February, the 1-3-1 Flames play catch-up, with 14 games in just 28 days ...Injuries are undermining performances all around the NHL, but the Colorado Avalanche have been particularly missing their new captain 20-year-old Gabriel Landeskog, who had been brilliant in the early going – or until he was knocked out of the line-up with head and neck injuries following a Brad Stuart check. With Steve Downie gone for the season (knee) and last year’s scoring leader Ryan O’Reilly unsigned, the Avs have been sputtering offensively until they popped six past Calgary and Miikka Kiprusoff on Thursday night, in a meeting of the 14th and 15th place teams in the Western Conference ... Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith is scheduled to return this weekend after missing time with a foot problem, but in the interim, the Coyotes got two good games out of Chad Johnson, a free-agent pickup last summer. Johnson started with a shutout victory and then earned the Coyotes a point in a 2-1 OT loss to Edmonton this week, which technically left him atop the goalie statistics with a miniscule 0.98 goals-against average. Playing ahead of the usual Phoenix No. 2 Jason LaBarbera, Johnson had previously made six NHL cameos over two season as Henrik Lundqvist’s back-up with the New York Rangers ... Desperately short of scoring balance, the Rangers were happy to learn that team captain Ryan Callahan’s shoulder injury wasn’t considered too serious and that he’ll likely only miss 10 days to two weeks. Callahan’s shoulder popped out in a fight with the Philadelphia Flyers’ Max Talbot – and the initial fears were it could be far more serious. Carl Hagelin, who lost his spot on the top line to Rick Nash, is especially struggling, with zero points in his first six games. Hagelin also failed to score a goal in 17 playoff games last spring (and added just three assists), after a pretty good rookie year (38 points in 64 games).