Boom or bust? We evaluate NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s turbulent first decade at the helm of the league – Chronology – Interview
THE NHL HAS HAD SOME STRONG men serving as league president since the league first formed in 1917. But a decade ago, after John Ziegler had resigned, the NHL owners decided that the man in charge should have a bit more power–in the tradition of the other major sports–and a search was on for the NHL’s first commissioner. Turns out, all they had to do was look toward the NBA to find the right man for the job.
In 1992, Gary Bettman was working for the NBA as general counsel and senior vice president, working directly under NBA commissioner David Stern. “It would be accurate to say that David Stern was my mentor in professional sports,” Bettman says. “We’ve had a very close relationship over the years. When I was with the NBA, I probably spent more time with him then any member of my family.”
The Board of Governors quickly realized that Bettman–a big hockey enthusiast–was their ideal candidate. And on February 1, 1993, Bettman became the NHL’s first–and so far only–commissioner.
Bettman first discovered hockey as a youngster growing up on Long Island where he rooted for the New York Islanders. His interest in the sport intensified during his college years. “Hockey took on a much more significant place in my rooting interest when I went to Cornell,” Bettman says. “Cornell was a collegiate hockey powerhouse, and I was a season ticket holder each of my four years there, which necessitated sleeping out a couple of nights just to get tickets.”
After graduating, Bettman went on to NYU for law school and then started to carve out a successful career in law. At that time, he had no idea that his law degree would someday help him become the most powerful man in hockey.
After practicing law for three years, Bettman was hired by the NBA in 1991 as assistant general counsel. It was during his time with the NBA that he became well versed with the skills and practices that would help him in his current role. “I really became familiar with each of the various aspects that go with operating a professional sports league while with the NBA: How to interact with teams; how the dynamic works; what the various operations are of a sports league from scheduling to security to operations to licensing to television to public relations. I had the opportunity to see how it all fits and works together.”
Taking over as NHL commissioner, Bettman’s goals from day one were to make the game as strong as it could be, more fan-friendly, and ultimately more popular. “We had to put together an organization, so initially there were a lot of hourly goals,” Bettman says. “When I came here, there was nobody running hockey operations. There was no one in broadcasting, no one in security, no public-relations function in the United States. So what we attempted to do was make sure we had an organization in place that could perform any of the tasks that any of the major professional sports leagues need to perform and be a factor in a very competitive marketplace.
“We needed a new collective bargaining agreement in short order with the officials; we needed one with the players. And we needed to grow the game and get more exposure. We needed more sponsors and we needed more licensees.”
It was a tremendous undertaking but one that the owners knew he could handle. In the past decade, Bettman has had a remarkable reign. Under his leadership, the NHL has seen unprecedented growth in areas such as broadcasting, marketing, international play, and expansion.
When Bettman entered the league in 1993, the NHL had just become a 24-team league with the addition of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators. Thanks in large part to the commissioner’s efforts, that number has increased to 30 today with franchises in places never thought feasible.
“We had the opportunity to work with Gary for several years in the NBA. We respected him there for his foresight and abilities to set policies, which advanced the league,” says Lightning president Rob Campbell. “A few people at the NBA office deserve enormous credit for moving the league forward in the ’80s and early ’90s, and Gary was one of them. We came into the NHL partially due to an appreciation for Gary’s abilities, and we have not been disappointed. Since we have been in the NHL, Gary has gone the extra mile to aid in the development of our franchise in Tampa and has kept us very optimistic about the long-term viability of the league.”
Says Bettman on expansion: “It was important to continually grow the game and have healthy, stable franchises. One of the reasons that expansion in the ’90s was so important to us was because we didn’t have a truly national footprint. In 1990 we were in 11 U.S. markets, now we have more than 20.”
Phoenix Coyotes GM Michael Barnett is one of the executives who has seen the benefits of expansion firsthand. “Since Mr. Bettman’s arrival there is one undeniable fact and that is this, clearly there are more youngsters taking up our game at an early age throughout North America, and particularly in the Sun Belt states of the U.S., than ever before. Many follow the NHL closely and are chasing that dream. We have more and better coaches teaching the game across the USA. This can only enhance the talent pool from which we draw at the NHL level. With the likes of Florida, Texas, and California now firmly established as hockey states, the NHL’s footprint is truly coast-to-coast. It’s a national–not regional–major sports league.”
In regards to international play, it was under Bettman that the NHL players were first allowed to compete in the Olympics, something that has been a big hit with the players and also the fans.
“It’s good for the game of hockey to have the top-caliber players involved in the Olympic games,” says Hall-of-Famer Peter Stastny, who was a major international performer for his home country of Slovakia during his career and helped put together last year’s Slovakian Olympic team. “It shined the light on the sport more than in the past and also opened the league up to more players than ever before.”
There has been a large influx of the international players into the NHL over the past 10 years, a goal that Bettman had worked hard to accomplish. Another area he’s worked at is diversity. The NHL now has the widest array of demographics of any of the major sports.
“We have the most diverse group of players from different countries and we have more players with different diverse backgrounds in North America playing the game than ever before,” Bettman says. “I think our multinational diversity is a great strength. We have players from 23 countries and a third of our players come from outside North America, so these are some of the best hockey players in the world.”
That diversity is something that hasn’t escaped the notice of some very powerful people. “When I was at the White House in November with the Detroit Red Wings, president Bush actually commented on how well a team as diverse nationally as the Red Wings are could come together, and he said ‘Hockey was a very good lesson for the world to live by,'” Bettman says.
One of his earliest achievements on the job was getting the NHL its first national TV agreement in the U.S. in more than 20 years. “There’s no greater exposure than by being on network television,” he says. “That’s what separates the major sports from the others. We missed an opportunity in the ’70s and ’80s and early ’90s to be on television but we’re getting the exposure now at a time when network shares are declining.
“We have a very, very good and vibrant fan base, it’s very attractive to advertisers, and I remain optimistic that we’ll continue to build on television. You have to look at our television coverage in perspective. Fifteen years ago, 50% of our games were televised. This year, I think the number exceeds 98% of our games that are televised. So we have been increasing our exposure. We have more national and local exposure than we’ve ever had before.”
In an effort to attract more kids to the game, Bettman has also been involved in establishing a Web site for children to learn more about the game, created NHL videos geared toward kids, and established a valuable grassroots program. The All-Star Game has also become a hockey weekend festival with activities and events designed for the whole family and community.
Bettman’s accomplishments reflect his commitment to league-wide stability and emphasize his belief that productive ongoing discourse between the league and the NHLPA is vital.
“We are committed to making sure we have the right economic system so that all of our clubs can be healthy and competitive, so that our game remains viable and so our tickets remain affordable,” Bettman says. “And we are working as partners with our players to achieve the result of benefits for the game, the players, the owners, and most importantly, the fans.”
A DECADE OF BETTMAN
* February 1, 1993: Gary Bettman is named NHL commissioner, replacing NHL president Gil Stein.
* October 1993: The NHL season begins with conferences and divisions renamed for geographic regions. The Minnesota North Stars relocate and begin play as the Dallas Stars. The NHL expands to 26 teams with the addition of the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
* April 1994: The playoffs begin with a new format of the top eight teams from each conference, with the two division winners receiving the top two seeds.
* June 1994: The New York Rangers end their 54-year Stanley Cup drought, pushing the NHL to the front of the national sports scene.
* September 30, 1994: NHL owners reject a collective bargaining agreement from the players’ association and decide to lockout the players.
* November 14, 1994: Kings president Bruce McNall, the man who brought Wayne Gretzky to L.A. and is credited with opening the doors to hockey expansion into non-traditional markets, is charged with bank and wire fraud.
* January 13, 1995: The lockout ends after 103 days.
* January 20, 1995: The NHL begins an abbreviated 48-game season.
* September 20, 1995: The Kings file for bankruptcy as a formality so they can be purchased Philip Anschutz and Edward Roski.
* October 1995: The Quebec Nordiques relocate and begin play in Denver as the Colorado Avalanche.
* January 20, 1996: The glowing puck makes its inauspicious debut during Fox’s airing of the All-Star Game.
* October 1996: The Winnipeg Jets relocate and begin play as the Phoenix Coyotes.
* July 23, 1997: Former New York Islanders owner John Spano is arrested and charged for bank and mail fraud related to his bid to buy the franchise.
* October 1997: The Hartford Whalers relocate and begin play as the Carolina Hurricanes.
* February 1998: The NHL season shuts down for two weeks as the elite players travel to Nagano, Japan, to play in the Olympics.
* August 1998: The NHL signs a five-year TV deal with ABC and ESPN.
* October 1998: The season begins with a bunch of changes: conferences are split into three divisions; the two-referee system is implemented; goal lines, blue lines and defensive-zone faceoff circles move two feet toward center ice; and the crease size and shape are modified. The league expands to 27 teams with the debut of the Nashville Predators.
* October 13, 1998: The Pittsburgh Penguins file for bankruptcy.
* June 24, 1999: The Penguins are sold to a management group led by Mario Lemieux; the sale is approved in September.
* October 1999: Overtime is changed to the four-on-four format, with the team losing in OT still getting a point. The league expands to 28 teams with the debut of the Atlanta Thrashers.
* October 2000: The league expands to 30 teams with the debuts of the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets.
* December 27, 2000: Mario Lemieux comes out of retirement, becoming pro sports first-ever player-owner.
* February 2002: The league shuts down again so the NHL players can participate in the Olympics. The Canadians win their first gold medal in 50 years.
* July 24, 2002: Buffalo Sabres owners John, Timothy, and Michael Rigas are arrested and charged with bank and securities fraud. The NHL assumes ownership of the club.
* January 9, 2003: The Ottawa Senators file for bankruptcy.
* January 13, 2003: The Sabres file for bankruptcy.
* April 2003: The Sabres are sold to Thomas Golisano.
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