In late 2016, the NHL Commissioner and now Hall of Famer sat down to discuss the pros and cons of his job, future Canadian expansion teams and whether he can skate.

Sportsnet: Can you skate?
Gary Bettman:

Can you stop both ways? Are you comfortable with your crossovers in both directions?
Let’s put it this way: I would consider my skiing ability to be far superior to my skating ability. And in fact my 10-year-old grandson, who’s a AAA squirt, can skate circles around me.

Have you ever cheered for an NHL team? I guess when you were a kid you did.
Yes, but I won’t go back there so people think I have some inherent biases, which I don’t. My rooting interest these days is first and foremost competitive hockey, and secondly in officials not making a mistake.

It would be funny if you were a big fan of the Ottawa Senators.
I think the other 29 teams might have an issue with that.

So I shouldn’t ask who your favourite player is?
No, I love them all.

Good answer. Same with the owners, right?
Absolutely with the owners. 

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
From as early as I can remember, I was focused on becoming a lawyer. 

You never dreamed of becoming a police officer or running your own candy store?
Not that I recall.

In high school, were you the president of student council, were you into sports? 
I played on the soccer team. I remember having a bunch of friends. And I remember having a good time. I don’t really think about having a retrospective on my high-school years. It’s not something that from a positive or a negative standpoint is a driving force in my life.

Those can be awkward years, right?
I remember them being just fine.

That’s good. You were in a fraternity at Cornell. Did you have to do anything crazy for initiation?
No, that was in the early ’70s. The fraternity system then was really a function of where you were going to live. In fact, we were a fraternity of people who were pretty focused on—in addition to having a good time in college—getting a good education. 

Do you have any nicknames?
Not that I’m aware of.

“If everybody who comes up to me afterwards and says, 'I didn't boo you' didn't boo me, I'm not sure anybody would be booing me.”

How would you describe your personality? 
Ah. If I were in therapy—and I’m not—I would leave that for my therapist. I tend to be optimistic, fairly easygoing, focused when I need to be,
passionate about my family and my job.

How were you introduced to hockey? Do you remember watching your first game? 
I went to a public high school in New York, and I remember getting into the Garden for 50 cents. I vividly remember going to the hockey games when I was at Cornell. I was a season ticket holder for all four years I was there. And in those days, you had to sleep out on hockey line to get your tickets. I even occasionally went on the road when Cornell was in the Frozen Four to watch the Big Red play.

“Sleep out on hockey line”?
They would announce hockey line was forming, and the line would last one or two days, and you had to stay in line to be eligible to buy season tickets for Lynah Rink.

So you slept on the sidewalk?
No, they would put us in the fieldhouse.

Oh, that’s nice.
It was very nice—it was essential, because it was gonna be cold that time of year.

So you were dedicated. What did you like about the game?
I’ve always loved the speed, the skill, the physicality of the game. And watching the game at Lynah Rink, which in those days was probably about 4,000 seats, was very intimate, and the students as fans were very active.

When did you last play? 
A long time ago. There’s always the question of… well a couple of things: One, I don’t have the time. And two, as one ages, there are a variety of physical ailments that make it wise not to engage in a sport where you can aggravate those ailments. Bad knees.

From soccer?
No, from running. At one point, I was running five miles every other day, nothing more than staying in shape. Each knee’s been operated on at least once.

What do you like most about your job? 
The game and the people associated with it, meaning the players, the executives, the league in club level and the fans. And, of course, the one aspect of my job that is the best is the honour of presenting the Stanley Cup every year to the league champions.

And you get booed tremendously while you do that. 
I hadn’t noticed.

Do you care if fans like you?
My interaction with fans is terrific. When I go to a game, the number of people who come up and say hello and want an autograph or a picture is overwhelming at points in time. I’m not sure that the narrative of what the media suggests fan opinion is is necessarily accurate, at least based on the experience that I have interacting with fans.

So it might just be fun for them to boo you when you award the Cup?
You know what, if everybody who comes up to me afterwards and says, “I didn’t boo you” didn’t boo me, I’m not sure anybody would be booing me. So who knows? 

“My job isn’t a job, it’s really a lifestyle. It’s 24-7, 365. You’re never off. So if you’re not passionate about it, you can’t do it.”

How many hours of hockey do you figure you watch each week?
I haven’t put a stopwatch to it, but on nights when I’m not at games or out doing other things, I’m typically watching games. And even when I’m out, I’m frequently checking in on games on any one of the number of digital devices I have.

Do you watch other sports?
Rarely. If I do, it tends to be because I’m being sociable.

Is hockey an obsession?
It has to be to do what I do. Because my job isn’t a job, it’s really a lifestyle. It’s 24-7, 365. You’re never off. So if you weren’t passionate—you call it an obsession, I’ll call it a passion—but if you’re not passionate about it, you can’t do it.

What’s your ideal day off?
Spending time with my children and grandchildren, just all being together and enjoying each other’s company. 

That sounds nice.
And spending some quality time with my wife, who probably doesn’t get enough of it, understanding as she does very well the demands of the job.

How many days a year are you on the road?
Somewhere between 80 and 100, maybe.

That’s not terrible.
I don’t think it’s terrible. It’s what I do. 

Will there be another NHL team in Canada before you retire?
I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that question.

I had to ask.
I respect you asking the question, but it depends on a whole host of factors that would have to be focused on and resolved. And nobody’s focusing on them or resolving them right now.

Is there anything hockey fans should know about you that maybe they don’t? 
They should know that I care about the game as much as they do. If not more.

Photo Credits

Matt Furman