Two sides of NHL’s Gary Bettman: league innovator and lightning rod

It was 20 years ago Friday that a bright-eyed, former NBA executive named Gary Bettman officially became the NHL’s first commissioner. His self-proclaimed mission: to spread the little-known gospel of hockey and duplicate the boom the NBA experienced by stabilizing the NHL’s economic underpinnings and making stars of its underappreciated players.

“The fans don’t want to read about labor negotiations,” Bettman said during his first week on the job. “They want to read game stories and stories about people.”


One lost season, two decades and three lockouts later, Bettman has generated more material for stories about labor negotiations than anyone but lawyers could have wanted.

But Bettman, 60, also has presided over an era of enormous growth and innovation that includes launching the widely appealing Winter Classic outdoor game, negotiating NHL players’ participation in four Winter Olympics and getting extensive TV exposure through a long-term deal with NBC/Comcast. League revenue, about $400 million when he took over, hit $3.3 billion last season.

“He came in with an outsider’s perspective to the sport, and in many ways that’s been an absolute positive,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon and an avid Vancouver Canucks fan.

“They’ve raised the level of many aspects of the business both on and off the ice that are an absolute credit to him…. But having to learn the nuances of this particular sport and maybe come to grips with the fact that like any business, there are opportunities and limitations, that’s sort of been a work in progress.”

Bettman changed the name of the divisions and conferences and altered the NHL’s look by expanding to 30 teams. Some of his efforts have been for the better. Others, such as the money-draining saga of the Phoenix Coyotes and questionable viability of some Sun Belt teams, go into the “worse” column.

By any measure he has wrought a dramatic transformation over the last two decades.

“Like all things in life, it goes in the blink of an eye,” he said during a recent visit to Los Angeles.

Maybe not for everyone.

“It’s been a long 20 years,” said Jim Boone, president of the NHL Fans’ Assn., which considers Bettman unresponsive to its 31,000 members and fans in general.

Fans may loathe him, but Bettman’s tenure has been extended by owners four times, most recently in 2011 to carry into 2016. Although he had to be pushed by key owners to make the offer that led to a labor deal and 48-game season, he maintained his power base after getting them most of what they wanted, notably the end of lengthy, front-loaded contracts and a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue over the life of a potentially 10-year agreement.

David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, cited increased franchise values and TV rights fees as signs of Bettman’s success.

“Having said this, how much stronger would the NHL have been without the work stoppages?” Carter said. “Apparently, the owners believed they needed Bettman to reboot the league’s business model and thus were willing to tolerate the labor problems on his watch.”

Bettman has borne most of the criticism for those woes, partly because of his perceived arrogance and partly because his role puts him out front.

“I think Gary has been willing to be the lightning rod for the fans’ angst more than any other commissioner,” Swangard said. “But I think time will show his willingness to take the blows was done with a sincere interest in improving the business of the NHL in the modern scope of sports business.”

Bettman has copied much of his strategy from his mentor, NBA Commissioner David Stern. But unlike Stern — who announced plans to step down Feb. 1, 2014 — Bettman isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

“He’s a tad older than I am, and maybe when I’m at his stage of life I’ll focus on things a little differently,” Bettman said of Stern, who is 70, “but I’m excited about the opportunity and the prospects for this game moving forward.

“I’m thrilled that we have 10 years of labor peace in front of us. It gives us an opportunity to continue all the growing of the game on and off the ice. I’m energized. I love what I do, and so I don’t focus on doing anything other than to achieve the objectives I just described.”

Boone, who operates the fans’ association in Ottawa, said he can’t bring himself to dislike Bettman. Instead, he faults owners for not obliging Bettman to take fans’ interests to heart.

“What other industry treats their customers the way the fans have been treated here?” he said.

And yet, Boone said, “If I’m an owner I’m happy with the job he’s done, because he’s making my bottom line stronger every year with growth exceeding what most industries or businesses would expect as favorable growth.”

NHL revenue will take a hit this season, though Bettman said the extent won’t be clear until the summer. So far, TV ratings have been strong in the U.S. and Canada, attendance generally has been good, and the Kings this week announced they had added nine sponsors.

“In some ways what the product is this year, with a shortened season and every game mattering, will just rekindle the interest,” Swangard said.

Bettman had to know that. That’s why he has lasted 20 years and is prepared to last many more.

“You have to savor every moment,” he said, “and you understand that life is a journey and there are ups and there are downs. On balance, you hope that there are more ups than there are downs.”

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