As the man who officially announced the NHL lockout and is seen as its architect, commissioner Gary Bettman is taking more darts than anyone in this dispute, even more than NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr.
The loudest criticism is coming from the players, who fire away every day to reporters or on their Twitter accounts.
“He’s been deemed the focal point by the owners. He’s their representative in bargaining so he’s become the guy where you direct everything at him,” St. Louis Blues forward David Backes said. “Guys are just saying this is the guy that’s taking what we really love to do away from us. It’s not something that guys are very happy about.”
Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said, “Gary is the lightning rod and there is a lot of raw emotion right now. You really can’t blame the players for voicing their frustration.”
But nowhere in that frustration or in any of the other critical assessments of Bettman’s handling of the lockout is there any suggestion the commissioner doesn’t know what he is doing. As many a hockey man or would-be hockey man from Bob Goodenow to Jim Balsillie discovered, you trifle with Bettman at your peril.
Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, who has the experience of being a Bettman employee, as the NHL’s director of hockey operations from 1993 to 1998, and of sitting with him in governors’ meetings, says he is the smartest man he’s ever met.
“When I worked for the league we would say about a guy, ‘He’s smart but he’s not Bettman-smart,’ ” Burke said.
Bettman is coming up on his 21st year as commissioner because he uses those smarts to keep the NHL’s 30 owners and their lieutenants mostly headed in the same direction. It may not be a direction completely in line with his personal views, which Bettman assiduously keeps to himself, but it is one he believes in strongly enough to stick to resolutely.
Bettman keeps the governors in line with a combination of methods.
There is legislation – he introduced a rule that allows him to reject a collective agreement proposal from the NHLPA with only eight votes from the 30 owners. Firing Bettman would require three-quarters of the owners to approve, something he negotiated when he took the job.
Bettman also made sure most of the other owners owed him enough, by naming them to the powerful governors’ executive committee or shepherding their attempts to buy a team or letting them bend the rules, that they will not cause any trouble. Finally, he makes sure he is aligned with the two most powerful owners, Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins, the chairman of the board of governors, and Ed Snider of the Philadelphia Flyers.
It is an adept way to handle people who are essentially your bosses and who are not accustomed to being told how to operate their business since many of them built successful companies before buying hockey teams.
“The problem with entrepreneurs is because they are successful in one area they think they are successful in all areas,” said Karl Moore, an associate professor in the Desautels faculty of management at Montreal’s McGill University. He says Bettman’s style of management is old-fashioned, one that serves the shareholders first, but necessary considering the makeup of the NHL.
“In effect, the owners are the shareholders of the corporation,” Moore said. “When it comes to herding cats, it may not be possible to move them around but [Bettman] can move their dishes around to get them where he wants to go.
“It’s a bit old-fashioned but I wouldn’t criticize it. In this case it’s effective.”
However, Bettman has the power to bite when necessary. The fear among NHL owners, executives and even former owners of sparking Bettman’s ire is such that rare is the one who will speak about him on the record.
“He’s very smart and very good at it,” says former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie, the rare fellow who will speak on the record because he is safely in retirement.
As president of MLSE, which owns both the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL and the Toronto Raptors of the NBA, Peddie got to see the leadership styles of both Bettman and the man he is often compared to, his former mentor David Stern, the famously combative and intimidating commissioner of the NBA. Peddie says Bettman can be tough but he is not as bare-knuckled as Stern, for whom Bettman worked for 12 years in the NBA office.
“The profile of any leader is they’re all very aggressive and assertive,” Peddie said. “And Gary would be high on that scale of assertiveness. But David Stern comes off a lot more aggressive than Gary Bettman, a lot more.”
Under Bettman, governors’ meetings are tightly scripted affairs. Major decisions are often thrashed out by the 10-member executive committee and then presented to the other owners. Most of the talking is done by Bettman, a few trusted NHL executives such as deputy commissioner Bill Daly, chief operating officer John Collins or vice-president Colin Campbell. Then the outcome is announced as a unanimous decision by the board of governors.
“It’s not like a board-of-governors meeting is everyone sitting around exchanging ideas,” said one former club owner who admires Bettman. “A board-of-governors meeting is a three-hour lecture from Gary, a PowerPoint on how we’re doing, you break and that’s it. There’s never once a discussion of what’s going on.”
But in Burke’s view, the reason these meetings flow smoothly is that Bettman spends many hours preparing for them. He stays in constant contact with the owners, team presidents and general managers, constantly testing the waters on various issues.
“On a busy day he might talk to 25 owners,” Burke said. “But it’s not dictatorial, it’s collegial and consensual. He works these guys, finds out what they want and makes it happen. He’s a master at it.”
Peddie’s only complaint about Bettman’s leadership, aside from impatience with governors who do ask a lot of questions, is a reluctance to go into great detail about the league’s financial problems such as the Phoenix Coyotes. It is this tendency to emphasize the positive at all costs – such as bragging about record revenue shortly before telling the players they have to take a big pay cut – that helps make Bettman the lightning rod for criticism although he believes it is part of the job.
Bettman does his homework so thoroughly he rarely has to deal with the unexpected with the governors, according to both Burke and Peddie. It is the same way when he is dealing with his employees in the league’s New York office.
“I don’t think Gary ever asks a question he doesn’t know the answer to,” a former NHL executive said. But when he asks a question, there had better be a good answer, although Bettman only raises his voice when he thinks it’s absolutely necessary.
“He demands accountability every day,” the former NHL employee said. “He’ll say, via a BlackBerry group e-mail, ‘Who is responsible for this?’ And someone will say, ‘I was.’ There has to be a very full explanation.”
One of Bettman’s few shortcomings, the former executive said, is that he can be deferential to former players. Brendan Shanahan, for example, has come to have great influence with the commissioner since being appointed vice-president of hockey and business development in December, 2009, shortly after he retired as a player. There are those who think it is no coincidence Fehr likes to have large numbers of players at the table in this round of bargaining.
Bettman famously needs little sleep, getting by on four hours or so a night, and spends almost every waking hour on the job. He expects the same from his senior executives.
At the same time, though, Bettman inspires great loyalty among those around him. Of the three top executives under the commissioner, Daly, Collins and Campbell, Collins has the shortest tenure at four years.
Some think this is because Bettman pays top dollar to his inner circle and is smart enough to hire those whose passion for hockey outweighs any potential friction with the boss. But Burke says it is because Bettman ultimately shows great loyalty to his employees no matter how demanding he is on the job.
“He is a great listener and a great guy to work for,” Burke said.