Upon being told that he was to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this weekend, league commissioner Gary Bettman described himself as “speechless.”
That’s about right.
You’ll be hard pressed to remember an individual highlight from Bettman’s quarter-century in charge. Unlike most of his sports-executive peers, he doesn’t hold court. Instead, he sometimes talks and people forget what he’s on about while he’s still going on about it.
You can recall his signature battlefield triumphs – hammering the players’ union into submission on several occasions, all the franchise hopscotch and the revenue increases everyone cheers about like it’s their own money.
But Bettman himself is obscure. What you can probably summon up best is his resigned smirk as he stands at the centre circle in some arena or other being booed during a ceremony.
“I understand it, and I don’t mind it,” Bettman said about those catcalls in an interview a few months ago. He didn’t go into what makes it understandable.
Among hockey’s proles, that’s Bettman’s legacy – the guy nobody liked for reasons no one can satisfactorily explain.
Is it the seasons or portions thereof lost to work action? Then why not boo the players, too?
Is it because he shows up in a suit looking like someone who never played the game? If so, maybe NBA fans should have a serious rethink about their universally admired leader, Adam Silver.
Is it the fact that Bettman’s American (though that wouldn’t explain it in America)? Who knows.
People boo Bettman, 66, for a lot of dumb reasons, but I suspect they are mostly offended by his unwillingness to simper. He’s incapable of pretending to be driven by a passion for the game. He’s never apologized for running our national pastime like a widget factory.
Bettman is no more in love with hockey than the CEO of IBM goes to bed dreaming about microchips. Anyone can see that. It’s why he’s been so effective at running it.
As a foundational principle, the business of sport isn’t much of a business at all. If you don’t count media content as a capital good (and I don’t), it doesn’t produce any tangible product. Its customers are fickle. Its valuations are skewed by emotion and ego.
How much would your run-of-the-mill billionaire pay for a New York meat-processing plant? Let’s run the numbers and see where we’re at.
How much would they pay for the New York Rangers? Here, just take my money.
The sports business is marbles for the super-rich.
Bettman, a lawyer by training and an accountant by temperament, brought a bookkeeper’s order to that schmozzle.
Unlike, say, a Roger Goodell in the NFL, he didn’t see caretaking the game as a divine calling. He didn’t want a pulpit. He has never needed to assert his control in public.
His soft-power approach reminds us how things used to work in the U.S. political sphere, before it all got so angry and erratic.
Consensus is built behind the scenes, rather than played out in news conferences with all involved hoping to say something so pithy (which usually means so unhinged) that it might lead off ESPN’s SportsCenter that night.
If Bettman is unusual in any regard, it is that he seems allergic to attention. You get why. He’s made a very good living being the Cardinal Richelieu to 31 (soon to be 32) royal families.
He’s got things wrong. Too slow off the mark on concussions; too penny-wise and pound-foolish on the Olympics; often brittle in his personal dealings. But he’s got more things right.
All the people who resent his micromanaging, small-steps approach don’t take much time to consider all the ways in which the NHL might have run off the rails over his tenure. Just look over at the NFL, which is run more like an unruly PTA meeting between over-involved parents than a corporation.
Instead, this league is governed by good sense and a steady hand. The result is a tenuous harmony. There’s parity on and off the ice.
Some were taken aback that Bettman gets the ultimate honour before his career is over. But what’s the sense in waiting?
Because every other NHL boss has been inducted, we know to a certainty that Bettman’s going in. It’s not as though he’s in his mid-30s and has a bunch of time on his hands. Why not give him his gong while he’s still completely with it?
Maybe Bettman hopes that getting his name in alongside the Smythes and Calders will prompt a small reconsideration of his accomplishments, but I doubt it. It wouldn’t be like him to care very much what other people thought.
The bottom line is that whenever he chooses to quit the NHL, he will leave it in better shape than he found it. He was always a bottom-line sort of guy.
The next obvious step is taking a parochial sport with considerable barriers to entry (not least of them, cost and geography) and turning it into a global concern. The finish line for every league in the world is soccer – how do you get that kind of universal coverage? Because if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking.
Though he’s taken a few little jabs at it, that won’t be Bettman’s work. It’s a problem for whoever follows him (and perhaps a few more afterward). That task will require an evangelistic spirit. Bettman doesn’t have it in him.
But he has done the job set before him – get the NHL’s books in order and put the league back on firm footing with the continent’s big-three sports – as well as it could be done.
The fans hate him for it. The players don’t like him much, either. The owners probably all disagreed with him on something. Every single person on every side of every issue inside hockey has had a bone to pick with Gary Bettman at one point or another.
That’s how you know he got it right.