Gary Bettman: The Velvet Enforcer

By: Jonathon Gatehouse

In his two decades as commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman has reshaped the game more than any figure in the league’s history. Now, with the NHL in the midst of its third lockout, Jonathon Gatehouse’s new book The Instigator details how Bettman has used a mix of charm, intellect and intimidation to exercise something very close to absolute power over the game that Canada loves more than any other. In this exclusive excerpt, Gatehouse details how Bettman has controlled the billionaires who are ostensibly his bosses, and provides a hint as to why this lockout is sure to end like the last two: with a triumph for the league over the players.

Twenty years ago, meetings of the NHL’s board of governors were free-flowing affairs. Not just in terms of what was being consumed during the cocktail hour aboard Bill Wirtz’s hundred-foot yacht, The Blackhawk, but when the boys finally got down to business, too. It was a smoky room full of large personalities: self-made entrepreneurs who were used to getting their way and had strong opinions about almost everything. “It was generally just the owners chiming in to talk about the work that they did in their city, and why that was the right way to do it,” recalls Cyril Leeder, who has been attending such sessions on behalf of the Ottawa Senators since their expansion bid in 1990. Often, the meetings descended into petty squabbling around the issue of the day—realignment, proposed rule changes, and most especially money. “The teams really ran the League, and the president was there to serve the teams,” he says.
One of Gary Bettman’s first innovations as the new NHL commissioner was to place microphones around the board table. The owners now had to wait for the little red light to go on to speak, and more importantly, there was a means to cut them off. The agendas became more formal, too, with reports, presentations, and brief discussion periods rather than formless crosstalk. The format hasn’t changed in two decades. When the league’s powerbrokers meet, it’s Bettman who takes the floor and frames the issues. He’s obsessive in his preparations for these encounters with his bosses, briefing himself and then quizzing his staff to make sure that they know the details as thoroughly as he does. “I’ve always thought from a league standpoint that it’s our job to know as much as possible, more than anyone else about anything we’re doing,” says the commissioner. “When you lead, you don’t do it by the seat of your pants. You do it by being as far out in front of the agenda as possible.”
The NHL may be the fourth largest, and cheapest to buy into, big league in North America, but it still has plenty of high-powered owners. Jeremy Jacobs, the chair of the board of governors since 2007, acquired the Bruins for $10 million in 1975 and today has a net worth of almost $2 billion courtesy of his food and hospitality company Delaware North, which runs rink concessions for many of his colleagues. Mike Ilitch, the founder of the Little Caesar’s pizza chain, also worth $2 billion, bought the struggling Red Wings for $8 million in 1982, and then a decade later paid $85 million for the Detroit Tigers. Stanley Kroenke, a Missouri real estate baron who is married to the daughter of Walmart’s founder, has a fortune of $3.2 billion and now owns the St. Louis Rams, most of the English Premier League club Arsenal, and all of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche (although control of the latter two franchises technically rests with his son, Josh, to conform with the NFL’s cross-ownership rules). David Thomson, the money man behind the Winnipeg Jets, is worth $17.5 billion. And there’s also Phil Anschutz, the deeply conservative and pathologically private—he hasn’t given an interview in more than a decade—owner of the L.A. Kings. His Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which promotes concerts and sporting events and owns stadiums around the world, including London’s O2 arena, is now bidding to get the NFL back to Los Angeles. A pricey proposition, but one he can well afford, with a net worth of $7 billion.
All told, the NHL now boasts eleven billionaire owners, according to the Forbes magazine rankings, just as many as the rival NBA. And its second tier are hardly paupers, most possessing fortunes that count in the upper hundreds of millions. They are important men—for the club remains all male—who are used to being treated deferentially and don’t suffer fools gladly. And from the very beginning, Bettman has proven to have a knack for stroking his betters. He emails. He calls. He remembers birthdays and anniversaries. And he listens. “I try not to let more than two or three weeks go without talking to each of the owners,” explains the commissioner. “Just to hear their voices and make sure that they don’t need anything. That there aren’t any problems.” Bettman has learned through experience—his own as well as what he’s absorbed from David Stern—that the troublemakers deserve the most attention. “The tendency is to stay away from the guys you think are giving you a hard time. But that’s exactly who you have to deal with.” The key is to be candid and transparent. “The people that own teams are smart, sophisticated business people. You don’t go around trying to manage them or bullshit them.” For all the power that Bettman wields has ultimately been loaned, not granted. And the easiest way to hold on to it is to keep his bosses happy. “He’s done a remarkable job of having a foot in the camp of the traditionalist Canadian franchises, but at the same time being very, very cognizant that we have to adapt or die,” says Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, a self-made man in new media with a net worth just under $1 billion.
Still, smooth talk and flattery will get you only so far. A key to Bettman’s success is his understanding that the job is as much a lion tamer’s act as anything else, and one should never enter the cage without both a whip and a chair. Section 6 of the NHL constitution, drafted in large measure by Bettman during his 1992 negotiations with the league, outlines the powers and duties of the commissioner. It provides him with exclusive authority to arbitrate and resolve disputes between the owners, establish committees, change the schedule, and interpret league rules. It also gives him sweeping disciplinary powers. If the commissioner determines that a club has violated the constitution or its bylaws, he can suspend or fire the offending employee, impose a fine of up to $1 million on any individual, or transfer players and take away draft picks.
Over the years, Bettman has frequently slapped around misbehaving owners and their representatives. In 1999, he fined the St. Louis Blues a total of $1.5 million for tampering in their 1994 pursuit of free agent defenceman Scott Stevens, even though
the case was built on information that was
voluntarily disclosed after a change in
club management. Ted Leonsis is a serial offender. In 2000, the Capitals owner received a stiff fine for telling The Washington Post that he was certain there would be a labour disruption when the collective bargaining agreement next came up for negotiation. Then in January 2004, he received a $100,000 penalty and was banned from all contact with his team for a week after he got into an altercation with a fan. The 20-year-old season-ticket holder had been holding up a sign in front of the owner’s box suggesting a linked pattern of failure on the ice and at AOL during a 4–1 loss to Philadelphia. When they met up in the hallway afterwards, Leonsis grabbed him by the neck and threw him to the ground—although he later apologized and the two men made up, sharing beers and watching a game against Tampa in his suite.
Pat Quinn of the Leafs, Pierre Boivin of the Habs, and Tim Leiweke, the president of the L.A. Kings, were all docked significant amounts of money in the run-up to the last lockout for offering predictions about how things might unfold. And Steve Belkin, then lead owner of the Atlanta Thrashers, was handed a $250,000 fine in October 2004 for telling a Boston paper that the league intended to use replacement players for the 2005–06 season if they didn’t get their cap.
But that all pales in comparison to the whuppin’ Bettman handed the owners of the New York Rangers when they sued the league over control of digital rights. Back in 1996, the teams had voted to let head office lead the charge onto the Internet, empowering the commissioner to create a website and market the game in cyberspace however he saw fit. A decade later, all the clubs had their own online presence, but the model was largely the same— remained the league’s main portal, point of sale for all team merchandise, and it was head office that sold most of the web advertising. New York didn’t like the arrangement, which it perceived as yet another way to transfer revenue from big-market teams to their poor cousins. And during the 2007 playoffs, the Rangers made an attempt to break free by setting up their own Internet store, broadcasting their games on the web, and inserting some virtual ads in their local TV broadcasts. Bettman reacted by fining them $100,000 for every day their site didn’t conform to league policy. And the team was back in the fold 48 hours later.
But the Dolan family, the owners of Cablevision, Madison Square Garden, and all of the pro-sports franchises that play there, were not happy about being pushed around. That September, they filed an antitrust suit against the league, alleging that the NHL was behaving as an illegal cartel and restricting competition, while aggrandizing and enriching itself at the expense of its clubs. James Dolan, the Garden’s CEO, sent a scorching letter to the other 29 members of the board of governors. Not only was Bettman out of line, he was failing miserably at the job, he wrote, noting that centrally generated league revenues had actually tumbled to just seven percent of the overall gross since the lockout. “After sacrificing a season to set our player cost economics on a proper footing, we believe that the league continues to squander opportunities to improve our business and solidify and grow our fan base.” It was a clear call for a coup.
The league responded with a counterclaim accusing the club of violating the NHL constitution by even seeking to sue their partners. And in November, a New York District Court judge handed Bettman an unequivocal victory, ruling that MSG was not only bound by the original web policy it had agreed to, but had failed to demonstrate that their interests, or anyone else’s, were being harmed by the league’s actions. The commissioner wasn’t done, however. In June 2008, he invoked another of his powers—one he had never used before—and filed court papers to strip the Dolan family of control of their hockey team, or failing that, force them to sell. “The Rangers’ ownership wasn’t too happy, but the other 29 thought we were doing the right thing,” says Bettman. “And part of my job is to protect the league for the other 29.” The matter was eventually settled out of court, and James Dolan was obliged to sign a declaration acknowledging that he was in the wrong and could indeed have been kicked out of the NHL. Something short of a head on a pike, but a potent warning for any future rebels. Dolan no longer has much contact with his colleagues on the board of governors. Asked what his relationship with the Rangers owners is like now, Bettman shrugs his shoulders: “It’s okay.”
The takedown of one of the league’s most influential franchises and richest backers—the Dolan clan is worth $2.6 billion—illustrates just how potent the commissioner has grown in his 20 years on the job. Today, there are only a handful of owners—Ed Snider, Jeremy Jacobs, Mike Ilitch, and the Wirtz family—who predate his arrival on the hockey scene, and they are among his greatest admirers. The other 26 are all people that he had a direct hand in recruiting and grooming, not only guiding them through the sale process but initiating them into the league and inculcating a respect for its rules, customs and mode of operation. The owners brought the monster to life, but he now controls the castle. And it’s that status as the NHL’s gatekeeper that has made Gary Bettman the most powerful figure the game has ever known. You can’t get in—or out—without his patronage.
The commissioner takes a back seat to no one. You underestimate him at your own peril. And once you’re on Gary Bettman’s shit list, it’s awfully hard to get off.

Adapted from The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever, by Jonathon Gatehouse. Copyright © Jonathon Gatehouse, 2012. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).

This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.

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