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.
A week or so before the first and only commissioner in NHL history was hired, former Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden sarcastically, although somewhat accurately, described the qualifications for the job.
“What everybody’s looking for,” Sinden told the Boston Globe in early December, 1992, “is the second coming of the man whose birthday we celebrate on the 25th of December.”
He didn’t say whether being able to walk on water, frozen or otherwise, was necessary. Turns out it wasn’t.
And that man they were looking for was Gary Bettman.
It was 25 years ago, on February 1, 1993, that Bettman officially took office and ultimately control of the NHL, with power never seen before.
But it was a few months earlier, on December 11, at the posh Breaker’s Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, that Bettman was introduced as the first NHL commissioner, succeeding Gil Stein, long-time legal counsel, who had a brief stint as interim president. Stein succeeded John Ziegler, who had essentially been nudged out of office in June 1992 after 15 years as president.
The Breaker’s had been a favourite haunt of Ziegler and his NHL owners, not too far from where former chairman of the board Bill Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, docked his yacht, The Blackhawk, which was also a favourite party place for the owners when they met.
As for the hotel, it was very opulent, very quiet, very old-fashioned money. Blazers had to be worn on the premises at night. Many a day, Stein, and sometimes Ziegler, dressed head to toe in white, would lead a contingent onto the front of the property for a spirited game of lawn bowling and cocktails, while others retreated to the golf course, or the pool.
And then cocktails. An old boy’s establishment, much like its guests – the NHL owners.
That day, when he was introduced, Bettman wore a dark blue suit with a colorful tie. He was flanked at the head table in a banquet room by the league’s chairman of the board and head of the selection committee, Bruce McNall, who was also the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, the man who brought Wayne Gretzky to California; and Stein, who had been given a very golden parachute the day prior, essentially to bless the Bettman hiring and soothe any divide amongst the governors.
And it worked. McNall was the first sign of a change of direction for the NHL, replacing Wirtz as chairman of the board.
Bettman was an even bigger sign of change. Bettman and his new friends sat at a head table on a riser, which was draped in a white table cloth, with a make shift black curtain hanging behind them, the NHL logo over his head. Pretty plain stuff by today’s standards. And while most of the seats in the room were full, the media gathering wasn’t overly large, again by today’s standards.
Over the years, even as the media grew, many didn’t bother covering governors’ meetings because few of the power brokers spoke, at least not on the record, because of the threat of financial penalty, and Ziegler would only deign to talk when the meetings were over and usually gave up nothing of interest.
But going into this meeting all the hockey world knew it was going to be significant, very significant, because the next and arguably most important leader of the NHL was going to be announced, pronounced change was coming, or so everyone thought, maybe even hoped. It was regarded as being one of the most important meetings in NHL history, the league was at a serious cross-roads, figuring out how to move forward, or risk becoming even more insignificant in the United States.
And there was also the contentious issue on the agenda of whether the NHL would allow its players to participate in the 1994 Olympics. Funny how times change, but not the issues. The announcement of the first commissioner, made by the colourful McNall, came a day after he had welcomed the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Miami Panthers into the NHL family, growing the league to 26 teams.
After he was introduced, Bettman told the press conference:
“I believe that a commissioner has the responsibility to run the game as well as he can for the benefit of everyone, the owners, players and the fans.
“The owners are my employer, but the way a league performs well is by making the product as attractive as it can to the greatest number of fans. And I believe that by making the sport as attractive as possible, as a sport and an entertainment product, that we will be in a position to satisfy all the needs, those of the owners, those of the fans, those of the players, as well.”
Beyond all that, Bettman was hired to inflict change, in how the league operated and was viewed and he promised he would deliver. And he did. But not without pain. And gain.
“We’re going to dispel the myth that this is a regional sport,” said Bettman. “The prospects for growth are phenomenal.”
When it came time for the photo-op, Bettman threw an NHL all-star hockey sweater over his head. It was too big, but no matter, he wore it and smiled bright. Short of replacing his former boss, this was his dream job. And unlike the hockey sweater, the job turned out to be a pretty good fit, though not without its rocky times over the years.
Bettman wasn’t the first choice of McNall and his search committee, but he wasn’t far behind.
McNall had spoken to NBA commissioner David Stern to get some advice and direction in the job search. McNall actually asked Stern if he would be interested himself, which he wasn’t, but Stern told McNall to consider his two deputies – Russ Granik, his second in command, and Bettman, the league’s senior vice-president and general counsel, his number three.
McNall was quickly impressed by Bettman. Several prominent corporate CEOs were also interviewed, a wide net was cast, but ultimately the NHL kept coming back to Bettman, who had been the architect of the NBA’s salary cap. And there was the politics of the NHL boardroom to contemplate, but somehow Bettman brought that room together when he was interviewed.
The mandate of the job was essentially to drag the NHL out the dark ages, to break up the old boy’s club, to modernize the operation and its marketing, to grow the game and the league, and to find economic stability, especially with a feisty Bob Goodenow having taken over as the head of the NHLPA. There were labour wars to be fought and the NHL wanted to make sure they had someone battle worthy.
Said one governor the day Bettman was hired: “This guy knows the problems of our business better than we do.”
“They’re getting the most valuable person in hockey since Wayne Gretzky,” said John Steinmiller, owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
Bettman took over a league with a broken business model. Network television access in the U.S. was profoundly limited. There was inflation on the cost side, but not necessarily the revenue side.
From the day he was introduced, and many years that followed, Bettman was viewed by many as an outsider to the game. He came from a basketball league, he had never played the game, and he was American. Bettman didn’t offer a lot of precise answers at his introductory press conference, but when he met with the governors he had all the right answers to their questions about the salary cap, how he would deal with the union. He impressed.
To give him the title and power he wanted as commissioner, the NHL had to change its bylaws. Bettman wound up with more power than any of the presidents who preceded him.
“The owners didn’t hire me to be a coach or general manager,” Bettman said during his first days in office, “but because I knew how to run a professional sports league.”
When he took over, there were 24 teams in the league with two more added the day before he was hired. Those two were from a deal brokered by McNall, with the expansion fee $50 million apiece, though McNall managed to pocket $25 million for territorial rights.
It was a glimpse of the type of world Bettman was entering, a business that desperately needed to be cleaned up and developed. No small undertaking.
But think how far the game has gone financially in his 25 years – that $50 million expansion fee has grown to $500 million (Las Vegas) and possibly $650 million (Seattle).
When Bettman took over, league revenues were roughly $400 million, now they are $4.5 billion. Player salaries have also wildly grown, from an average of around $450,000 to roughly $3 million today. There is a salary cap he was hired to achieve.
There are 31 teams and a much different game. Of course, there were also three work stoppages.
Over those 25 years there have been great successes and growth and a fair share of awkward moments, not unlike the day he was hired.