Twenty-five years to the day that Commissioner Gary Bettman visited Anaheim to witness the first-ever game played by the then-Mighty Ducks, he returned on Monday to help the team celebrate its first quarter-century.
Bettman was 41 years old on Oct. 8, 1993, and only a few months into his job as the NHL’s first commissioner (the highest title previously awarded was president) when the Mighty Ducks were launched as expansion cousins of the Florida Panthers. He recalled on Monday the questions that accompanied the addition of another team in Southern California, especially a team owned by the family-oriented Walt Disney Company.
“It was a night of excitement and anticipation and a little bit of uncertainty, but as Michael Eisner reminded me a couple of weeks ago, the game presentation was unique — he didn’t have to remind me of it — but it was the precursor of what we ultimately saw last season in Las Vegas,” Bettman said, referring to the innovative entertainment ideas introduced by Eisner, then Disney’s chairman. “This was a vibrant area with a state-of-the-art building, and with Disney spearheading the franchise, we believed that hockey in Southern California, south of L.A., would work, and it has dramatically.”
Bettman also praised Henry and Susan Samueli, Orange County residents who bought the team from Disney in June 2005. The Ducks won their only Stanley Cup championship under the Samuelis’ ownership, in 2007.
“Disney got them off to a great start, but I’ve got to tell you, the Samuelis have been incredible owners,” Bettman said. “When you look at what’s happened, not just with this franchise but the involvement of the team in the community and all the programs they put on, when you look at grass-roots hockey, I think a decade ago there was one high school team and now there are 49, there are exponentially into the thousands more young people playing the game, hockey is not only alive and well in Orange County, it’s deeply rooted, and that’s great to see.”
Eisner joined the Samuelis for the ceremonial face-off on Monday at Honda Center, along with goaltender turned broadcaster Guy Hebert — who was in the net for the team’s 7-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the 1993 game — and defenseman Sean Hill, who scored the first goal in team history. The current Ducks, who faced Detroit on Monday, wore throwback teal-dominated uniforms that closely resembled the “duck mask” jerseys they wore from 1993-2006.
Bettman has lasted longer in his job than did the “Iceman,” who was introduced as a human mascot during the first game but was booed by fans and never made it to a second game. The cartoonish Wild Wing mascot has survived, sometimes only barely. “There were a variety of changes,” Bettman said, smiling. “Wild Wing had some calamities: falling through a trampoline, catching fire, getting stuck one night. But that was all part of the growing process. And you know what? It was at a time where all sports were probably, from a business presentation standpoint, less sophisticated than they are now.”
When I asked Bettman if he intends to return for the Ducks’ 50th anniversary, he laughed. “If you and I are still around I’ll meet you here,” he told me. “That would make me 91, that would be great. I wasn’t talking about the working part. The breathing part is what I was trying to say. To be here at 91 would be pretty good.”