Gary Bettman, now 20 years as NHL commish, is either loved or hated

Adam Proteau
Gary Bettman (Dave Sanford/ NHLI via Getty Images)
Gary Bettman (Dave Sanford/ NHLI via Getty Images)

On Dec. 11, 1992, the NHL board of governors confirmed Gary Bettman would replace Gil Stein as league commissioner. In the two decades-plus that have followed, Bettman has guided the game to a new era of billion-dollar broadcasting contracts and an on-ice product considerably different than the one he inherited. The 61-year-old has also built up a legion of critics – full disclosure: the author of this story has frequently been one – but he’s pushed ahead relentlessly and evolved into a bulldozer of a businessman, accepting that there will be collateral damage at times.

If you watch any of Bettman’s press conferences, you’ll recognize he doesn’t easily agree with the premise of many journalists’ questions. If your perspective doesn’t jive with his, he won’t concede you’re right simply for the sake of pleasantries. That’s not what the world’s savviest sports lawyers are extremely well compensated to do.

And Bettman is nothing if not savvy. You don’t survive the likes of hawkish owners such as Jeremy Jacobs and the late Bill Wirtz for more than 20 years unless you: (a) quickly figure out the lay of the land and (b) sculpt it to serve your vision. And that’s precisely what Bettman did very early in his tenure via changes to the NHL constitution that consolidated his power.

Since then, even Bettman’s harshest critics would admit he’s helped grow the game. He began with 24 teams. He currently governs 30. And the league is widely speculated to be interested in expanding to 32 soon (more on that later). He’s increased the NHL’s footprint in Europe and recognized the value of Olympic participation by NHL players in building momentum for the product. He’s been open-minded when it comes to cutting-edge technologies, entertainment options and changes to the game such as the shootout and the crackdown on obstruction.

But do you really want to know why Gary Bettman has been the big dog on the ice block for as long as he has? It’s quite simple. In the NHL’s first full season under his watch, revenues were pegged at $732 million. In the 2013-14 campaign, that number is expected to come in around $3.6 billion. And it’s only getting better: the league’s mammoth new Canadian TV rights holder deal (worth $5.2 billion over the next 12 years) with Rogers Sportsnet should put something in the neighborhood of $10-15 million into each team’s coffers every season. To a moneymaker’s moneymaker like the Toronto Maple Leafs, that’s chump change. But to teams that claim to live or die financially on whether they make the playoffs and win one or two rounds, that’s a lifesaver.

And that’s one of the hallmarks of the Bettman Era: with a few notable exceptions – the Quebec Nordiques, the original Winnipeg Jets and the Atlanta Thrashers that became the Jets 2.0 – Bettman has managed to keep his house in order. He’s kept the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona when most people had written their obituary. He brought in a new ownership group for that franchise and a slew of others who were imperiled to various degrees (including the Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning); he championed the Canadian assistance plan to help buoy some of the smaller-market northern clubs while the Canadian dollar was in the doldrums; he convinced his employers to help cover the costs of payrolls in New Jersey and Dallas until he found new owners (and he did there, too); and he got the Detroit Red Wings to the Eastern Conference and the Jets to the West.

You don’t get everything you want as an owner in his NHL, but in every new collective bargaining agreement, he’s got some type of goodie for you. In the most recent labor deal, if you were a small-market team owner, not only did Bettman arrange a 50/50 split of revenue (as he did for all teams), but he further restricted the ability of big-market franchises to bury lucrative contracts in the minor leagues. If you were a big-market team owner, however, he allowed you to use your largesse by disposing of two unproductive players per team via amnesty buyouts.

So when Bettman takes questions from THN just prior to the winter board of governors meeting in December, he speaks with the confidence of someone riding a hot streak. He makes it clear the NHL hasn’t yet considered the possibility of participating in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea and hints a World Cup-type tournament is more likely. He talks about working with the Players’ Association to further develop the NHL brand in Europe. He says he isn’t concerned that, in cutting longtime league broadcasting partner (and co-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs) Bell Canada out of televising NHL games in Canada, he is burning bridges.

Although he subsequently tells a scrum of reporters the league is listening (on an informal basis) to those interested in expansion, he remains his intentionally coy self during our conversation. So if you’re a hockey fan in Quebec City, Seattle or Southern Ontario (the three most rumored spots for relocation), don’t plan on having a new team just yet. However, Bettman does sound like someone who could get used to being courted for a while after doing so much courting of his own while securing owners to be a balm for the NHL’s sore spots.

“The most important elements are market, arena and ownership,” Bettman says of potential expansion. “But the issue is we have to first decide if we’re thinking about arena, market and ownership, if we have anything to offer. If we’re not relocating – and we’re not in any position to be thinking about relocation – and if we’re not expanding, that’s not something we’re contemplating having a process on. Considering another market or putting a team in a place where it isn’t right now isn’t a productive line of inquiry or thought.”

What is productive for Bettman’s NHL is the way it has employed advancements in technology to do a better job of reaching fans. Remember, the history of the league includes the late Hawks owner Wirtz, who infamously refused to allow his team’s home games to be televised. But under Bettman’s stewardship – and with the help of smart hires such as NHL chief operating officer John Collins – the league has been on the vanguard of social media and has done stellar work in bringing its brand to constantly changing platforms.

The most animated Bettman gets is when he’s asked to look ahead.

“What we’re going to continue to see is the evolution of a fan’s ability to connect with the game in ways that previously had been unheard of,” Bettman says. “And whether or not it’s on TV by cable or satellite, whether it’s streamed onto a TV set or a tablet or a computer screen, whether or not it’s by mobility, whether or not it’s entire games, or clips of games, or statistics, or stories or wraparound programming, we are committed to giving our fans the most complete experience they have to connect them to the game.”

Something that has disrupted that connection on a far-too-regular basis is Bettman’s habit of bitter labor disruptions. It doesn’t matter who has been running the NHLPA – Bob Goodenow in 2004-05 or Donald Fehr last season – the tactics of Bettman and legal firm Proskauer Rose have been clear: owners begin negotiations with a lowball process, test the union’s mettle by freezing them out and eventually settle. However, Bettman is unrepentant at the route he’s chosen. Considering the way the fans rushed back to embrace the product immediately after the past two lockouts, it’s understandable why he should be emboldened by the process.

“It’s terrible and unfortunate when you can’t make a deal without a labor disruption, but it’s more important that you have the right economic system,” Bettman says. “What we achieved was basically the same revenue-sharing formula between the players and the clubs that had then been put recently in place by both football and basketball. It was something we felt was important. We had hoped we didn’t have to go through a work stoppage, but sometimes those things are unavoidable. But the worst of it is obviously the impact it has on the fans and the people who work in the business.”

Another unfortunate element of the business may not be so easily controlled in the future: namely, the looming series of concussion-related lawsuits the NHL is expected to face. Former NHLer Steve Moore’s multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Todd Bertuzzi is scheduled for an Ontario court in September and a group of retired players recently made headlines by filing a class-action lawsuit alleging the league fraudulently withheld vital information on head injuries from them.

Bettman does not discuss either case specifically, but doesn’t dismiss outright the notion the league must continue to evolve in its approach to concussions and fighting.

“I don’t think it’s sensible right now to have a debate that’s very emotional on both sides,” Bettman says when asked if he sees a day the NHL would automatically eject players with a game misconduct for any fight. “If there comes a point where that’s on the table and that enough people feel needs to be changed, then it’ll get considered. But according to the last poll I saw from the players, something like 98 percent like it the way it is. And if you’re going to make a change, there needs to be a consensus.”

The consensus about Bettman among hockey people is clear: he’s never going to be the most charismatic man in the room unless it’s a one-person room. He’s never going to be the most popular man in the room, especially if that room is filled with NHL player agents and delusional fans (many of whom continue to propagate the pathetic, patently false idea he hates Canada). But whatever room he’s in, Bettman is going to be one of the smarter people there, if not the smartest. He’s going to be himself, focus on his goals and not show the slightest concern as to what everyone else thinks.

Here’s an example: the on-ice Stanley Cup presentation ceremony wherein Bettman awards the trophy to the captain of the winning team has become increasingly awkward as fans lustily boo the commissioner. It has been suggested it would be a good idea if Bettman stepped aside and allowed a more popular figure to do the honors. Bettman disagrees.

“The fact is, as far as I know, it’s always been presented by the president or the commissioner,” Bettman says. “That’s how it’s typically done in other sports. It’s a nice tradition. It shows the winning team, the game and the Stanley Cup the appropriate level of respect.”

On some level, you have to respect the singularity of purpose one must be consumed by to rationalize that reception and shut out the noise. And if there’s something most admirable about the commissioner after 20-plus years, maybe that’s it. He knows his job, he knows what his bosses want from him and he has delivered on virtually every front.

Bettman isn’t here to paint his face and sit in the stands or hang with players at charity golf tournaments. He’s a successful businessman and a human shield for the owners and he came to terms with that long ago.

Maybe the rest of us should, as well.

This feature originally appeared in the Feb. 10 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.