Try to remember way, way back, when Gary Bettman was regarded as the worst commissioner in pro sports. Well, OK, maybe not so far back. But there’s no arguing the leadership deck has been shuffled.
A large part of that has to do with the implosion of Roger Goodell, who over the course of a few weeks has morphed from the unassailable ruler of the biggest sports entertainment concern on Earth to a bumbler who can’t get out of his own way, who may well achieve the near-impossible by getting fired at a time when every NFL owner is swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck.
Bud Selig, in the final days of his stewardship of MLB, tends to be underestimated, what with the bad haircut, the small-town car-dealer vibe, the fact that he was an interim fill-in who became full-time and then presided badly over the 1994–95 strike with its awful replacement-player gambit. To be fair, he also deserves credit for some of the sport’s 21st-century prosperity, because he and his minions were way ahead of the curve when it came to new media.
David Stern, the reigning champ, is gone, and though his replacement, Adam Silver, earned high marks for his handling of the Donald Sterling affair—averting a player insurrection, keeping sponsors on side, and then seeing the Los Angeles Clippers sold for a ridiculous price that made every other owner (and their bankers) smile—he’s still in his early days.
That leaves Bettman, who 20 years ago was presiding over his first lockout—the one that killed all of the momentum from the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup win and Sports Illustrated declaring hockey cooler than basketball.
Ten years ago, he was presiding over his second lockout, which led to the NHL becoming the first major pro sport to sacrifice an entire season at the altar of a salary cap. It was a terrible time for hockey, but the owners in every other sport owed him a big thank you, because if someone was crazy enough to pull the pin, then other threats must not be idle, and players and their unions could more easily be brought to heel.
In between those two labour wars, Bettman was beset by failing franchises and embarrassed by undercapitalized (and occasionally crooked) owners. All you had to do was say “Boots Del Biaggio” and everyone understood the punchline, everyone understood who was the butt of the joke. Jim Balsillie may have been tilting at windmills in his attempt to buy a team and move it to Hamilton, but it was the league and the commissioner who came out of that protracted battle with egg on their faces.
The sport’s core fan base never liked or trusted Bettman, because he wasn’t a “hockey guy,” because he came from the NBA, because he had no natural affinity for the game, and because in moments of stress he became prickly rather than presidential. And yet here we are in 2014, and how do hockey and its commissioner stack up in comparison to the rest of the professional sports landscape?
There are still weak teams in Phoenix and South Florida that will likely need to be relocated. There are still other franchises losing money. A sudden downturn of the Canadian dollar would still cause considerable havoc. But all things considered, it’s a pretty good time for the NHL.
The formidable Don Fehr is running the players’ association now, but there will be a long stretch of labour peace. A new 12-year television deal in Canada is a gamble for both sides, but it provides a significant degree of financial stability. Hockey has been relatively scandal-free. Its kookiest, most embarrassing owners aren’t in the same class as Sterling—or Jerry Jones.
Though the NHL still struggles to create stars and isn’t close to pushing past any of the Big Three in the United States, it plays to a loyal consumer base that is very attractive to advertisers. Think of the shooting stars that have burned brightly and then faded over the course of Bettman’s tenure—NASCAR, UFC—which, it turns out, weren’t really reinventing the sports-marketing wheel. Meanwhile, hockey has chugged along, a regional attraction, overly reliant on Canada but steadily growing as a business.
There is a brand new arena under construction in Quebec City that will soon be ready for a team, another in Las Vegas, and there is the expansion-fee bonanza that a second franchise in the Greater Toronto Area would represent. Bettman doesn’t get all of the credit for that, just like he didn’t deserve all of the blame for past fiascos. The balance, though, has tilted in his favour.
He has a long way to go before they love him in Hockeyland, but maybe one of these years they won’t even heckle him when he hands over the Stanley Cup.