Why you shouldn’t expect Bettman to slow down anytime soon

Gary Bettman joins Ron MacLean to discuss working towards new arenas in Calgary and Ottawa, goalie interference and video review.

This column was originally written on Feb. 1, 2018. Gary Bettman was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder on June 26, 2018.

It is well known that over the past 25 years the NHL has grown from a $400 million enterprise to one in excess of $4 billion. Over that same time, it has grown from 24 teams to 31, with a potential 32nd franchise on the horizon.

Stability in professional sports can mean many different things. Through the introduction of the salary cap, limits on player contracts (both for term and maximum dollars) and revenue sharing, many would say the NHL has never been more stable. Wealthy clubs still drive revenue, while the gap between them and the less profitable ones isn’t as large as it once was. The man responsible for all these changes over the past quarter century is the one in the NHL comissioner’s chair: Gary Bruce Bettman.

As he enters his 26th season as the NHL’s leader, Bettman has never enjoyed more authority at the executive and board level. Some of the challenges facing Bettman and his team of senior executives today are the similar to other ones he has presented with earlier in his tenure. Today, Bettman takes them on with a great deal of experience under his belt, with the confidence to manage the league’s corporate partners, even through lockouts, opting out of the 2018 Olympics and some continued franchise instability.

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It should be noted that since the departure of league COO John Collins in 2014, Bettman has restructured the organization to create more direct reports to himself, thereby giving him a more direct day-to-day feel for the various business units within the NHL’s New York City offices. When Collins left the NHL, there were those who felt that his vision for the future of the game would leave with him. That has not been the case. Many feel Bettman has become even more informed about the day-to-day management of the league, and made it a much more nimble operation in this digital age.

Bettman also continues to grow the game at his own pace. Whether it be the Las Vegas experiment, which has worked very well, or sojourns into Europe and Asia, Bettman makes the final decision when it comes to what is good for the NHL and what isn’t. He will tell you that he is just carrying out the will of the NHL board of governors, but there is such trust and confidence in Bettman and his leadership group, that board approval merely reflects the long range plan that Bettman has devised.

Over the next few years, Bettman will be presented with a few challenges if he is going to continue to grow the game. They should be enough to keep him engaged well into the next decade:


With Seattle having the inside track, and new fees increasing to $650 million, Bettman will add yet another geographic notch on his belt: the U.S. Pacific Northwest. A Seattle team will create more rivalries for West Coast teams, and add a Top 15 U.S. television market to the league’s footprint.

Franchise stability

Gary’s total and undying loyalty to Arizona is admirable, yet baffling. The location of the arena remains a key point in why this franchise has yet to succeed. Add in a lack of playoff appearances, and the current overall poor performance of the team, and you have to wonder if this franchise will ever succeed. But Bettman has always been a believer. However, you have to wonder if the financial drain the Coyotes have been (both from a revenue sharing perspective and an overall debt service perspective) will finally push the commissioner into the camp of those who have said enough is enough, and move the team.

Bettman has always been reluctant to relocate teams, but when there are markets potentially wanting into the club — markets that could generate positive revenue — you have to wonder if that time is near. The Carolina situation seems to have resolved itself with new owner Thomas Dundun, at least for now. Is Florida still a hot spot? Panthers ownership says no, but empty seats give another impression. Managing this issue and finding willing participants to purcahse teams has always been Bettman’s strength. This is not the time to doubt whether he can manage any crisis that he and the league has to face.

New arenas in Calgary and Ottawa

Bettman has always been of great assistance to owners in bridging the gap with local politicians. All you have to do is look at Edmonton to remember the vital role he played as a conduit between the Mayor of Edmonton and Darryl Katz in order to get Rogers Place built. And while there is certainly progress in Ottawa between the city, the National Capital Commission and Eugene Melnyk and his partners in the development of LeBreton Flats the same can not be said in Calgary.

Friction between the city, the mayor and the Flames remain. Tension between the mayor and Bettman is also palpable. There’s no disagreement over the need for a new arena. The debate is over how it will be financed. The situation is ugly and will take considerable negotiations and mediation. But right now the sides aren’t even talking.

Naheed Nenshi celebrates his victory as Calgary's mayor following municipal elections in Calgary, Alta., early Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Naheed Nenshi celebrates his victory as Calgary’s mayor following municipal elections Oct. 17, 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

The next collective bargaining agreement (CBA)

The current CBA is much closer to its conclusion than anyone wants to admit. The agreement is set to expire on Sept. 15, 2022. However, both the NHL and the NHLPA have the right to terminate it on midnight Sept. 15, 2020. The NHL has another option to terminate it on or before September 1, 2019. If NHL has not already done so, the NHLPA may exercise its option to terminate the deal on or before September 15, 2019. Quite frankly, that’s not that far away.

Is the current CBA working? For the owners, yes. For the players? For some, yes. The NHL has always rebounded well from postponed and cancelled seasons. One would hope that Bettman won’t have to lock-out players again, and the players don’t consider a strike. The issues? The same as always: Escrow, contract term limits, revenue sharing and international competition.

The next U.S. television contract

NBC’s current 10-year deal expires in 2021, so unless an extension signed, Bettman will take the rights to the open market. NBC has been a very good partner at $200 million per year, a number that looked good when the contract was signed, but the landscape has changed. Television rights fees in other sports have exploded. The digital landscape with Amazon, Netflix and Facebook has opened many peoples’ eyes to the possibility of a larger, more lucrative window for hockey on television. Do you stay with the incumbent? Do you hope that Fox/ESPN (who now own regional properties following the Fox purchase) come back to hockey in a big way, or is there someone else out there worth exploring?

The Olympics

Days away from the start of the 2018 games, there has been much less clamour over the absence of NHL players than even Bettman’s most ardent critics would have anticipated. But what about Beijing in 2022? Can the NHL pass up a chance to participate in Games in the world’s largest consumer market? And while most of us have surmised that NHLers participating in Beijing is a given, the guarantees the NHL are asking of the Chinese, the IIHF and the IOC will be no different four years from now. He will not compromise what his 31 member clubs require in order to participate. Appearing on the world’s biggest stage is great, but not at any cost. It’s important not to compromise what every team needs to maximize revenue for 41 home dates.


While still not the most popular person in our country, Bettman has certainly endeared himself to his Canadian owners, the Canadian corporate community, and even government. Bettman has been good for Canada, with the U.S. currency assistance program in the 1990s, to the return of the Jets to Winnipeg. He understands our passion for the game and the importance of strong Canadian franchises to ensure the overall health of the league.

Over the past 25 years, Bettman has had his contract renewed at least three times. It has always come with little or no fanfare, let alone a press release or some sort of announcement. When pressed on it, he downplays the extensions and the money, saying it’s not worthy of public discussion.

At 25 years Bettman is closing in on Frank Calder (26 years as the NHL’s first president) and he is just six years shy of matching Clarence Campbell, who headed the league from 1946 to 1977, in longevity. His quarter-century reign is also within a field goal of Pete Rozelle’s time as NFL commissioner (29 years) and a jump shot short of David Stern’s 30-year tenure running the NBA.

Could he surpass Rozelle, Stern and Campbell? Absolutely.

Will he become the longest running commissioner in pro sports? Without a doubt and when he does it will be with little or no fanfare.

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