He was, for the full run of the NHL lockout, public enemy No. 1 in Canada – commissioner Gary Bettman, presiding over yet another work stoppage, the third of his 20 years on the job. In every imaginable forum – public-opinion polls, website chat boards, veiled threats to cancel contracts from sponsors – there seemed to be a clear, undeniable message: That this time, Bettman’s willingness to suspend NHL games until he could wring more concessions from the NHL Players’ Association may have gone too far. This time, he may have tested the viewing public’s patience once too often – and that when the labour dispute was eventually resolved, there would be a backlash.
But as an executive, Bettman is nothing if not stubbornly convinced of the rightness of his own position – and he was convinced that the NHL’s ultra-loyal fans would return, no matter what.
Now, some two-thirds of the way through the lockout-shortened 48-game season, it looks as though he will be proved right.
The industry has emerged from the disruption barely bruised. Fans flocked back in their usual numbers, television ratings soared and the outlook remains promising.
It is Bettman’s involvement in the lockout – and its eventual resolution – plus a laundry list of the things that remain on his personal to-do list in its aftermath that put him into the No.1 spot on The Globe And Mail’s annual list of the Power 50.
Bettman knocked Donald Fehr, last year’s winner, out of the top spot, largely because he will be front and centre in the one conversation that will drive the Canadian sports agenda for the rest of 2013, namely, is the NHL going to Sochi to participate in the 2014 Olympics, and if so, how will Canada’s men’s team look?
Since the lockout ended, negotiations among the NHL, the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation have been ongoing, but with the Games less than a year away, no formal commitment has been made.
This, of course, falls into the Bettman playbook quite nicely. Bettman is like a poker player. The art of negotiating – playing the negotiating game – is what drives him.
He doesn’t mind going down to the wire in any talks in order to extract the best possible deal for the NHL, which is what’s happening with the Olympic talks now, too. Bettman wants a better deal for his league – improved access for his owners and his general managers; and the right to use images from Olympic competition in the NHL’s own marketing ventures. He will press for these concessions, until such as time as the IOC relents, and Bettman’s history – the only commissioner to cancel a full season – suggests that he’s fully capable of walking away, if he doesn’t get what he wants.
Bettman’s workload hasn’t shrunk much, in the two-plus months since the lockout ended. Since then, he has already overseen an ambitious realignment project under which the Winnipeg Jets play in a geographically more sensible location next season – moving from the Southeast Division to the as-yet-unnamed Midwest Division, while the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets move east.
The league still needs to resolve the Coyotes future in Phoenix, a thorn in Bettman’s side for the past three seasons, or since the NHL took over operations of the franchise from former owner Jerry Moyes. He is also consistently about stability, which is why his persistence in trying to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix shouldn’t be a surprise. He was that way with Pittsburgh (when Jim Balsillie was trying to buy the club) and as far back as the late 1990s, was that way with Edmonton, too.
The new collective agreement is essentially still just a memorandum of understanding, full of loose threads that need to be tied together. There are also a series of new owner-player committees that will focus on a broad range of topics, including player-safety initiatives and increasing the NHL’s visibility abroad. The Winter Classic needs to be reaffirmed, another Heritage Classic is likely coming to Canada next year and Columbus, which had the all-star game cancelled this season because of the labour dispute, is owed a game somewhere down the road.
Then there is the matter of negotiating a new agreement for Canadian television rights, after coming to terms with NBC and its affiliated networks for a record $2-billion pact for U.S. rights.
Busy, busy, busy, but as Bettman noted on the day the realignment puzzle was solved, he – and the league – are noted for juggling multiple initiatives.
“I know there’s this quaint notion that we only focus on one thing at a time,” Bettman said. “We’re actually pretty good at multitasking. … We have to do a number of things at the same time.”
It is why, despite the fact that he is generally considered an unpopular choice to lead the NHL by many of the people who watch it, Bettman received a contract extension in November of 2011 and freely admits that he has no interest in going anywhere or doing anything but lead the NHL for the foreseeable future. Like him or not, Bettman is going to be around for a while yet.
How the list is assembled
Globe and Mail sportswriters across the country nominate people within their coverage regions and fields of expertise.
Staff writers and editors participating included David Ebner (Vancouver bureau), Allan Maki (Calgary bureau), Sean Gordon (Montreal bureau), Paul Waldie (Manitoba), Roy MacGregor (hockey, Ottawa bureau), Eric Duhatschek (hockey, tennis), Hayley Mick (Olympics) Rachel Brady (football, tennis), David Shoalts (hockey), James Mirtle (hockey), Robert MacLeod (basketball), Jeff Blair (general, baseball), Tom Maloney (general, baseball), Paul Attfield (soccer), deputy sports editor David Leeder and globesports.com web editor Darren Yourk.
Shawna Richer, Sports Editor