Bettman still getting the job done
Scott Burnside [ARCHIVE]
January 31, 2013
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There will be no cake with 20 little wafer hockey sticks or stick-shaped sparklers or 20 little licorice pucks to mark this day.

Did you really expect NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to mark his 20th anniversary on the job in such an ostentatious manner?

"I don't typically dwell on those types of things," Bettman told this week.

And so instead of a grand celebration of two decades as commissioner of the most unique (if not the most difficult) pro sports league to manage, we start instead with a bathroom story.

Brian Burke went to work for Gary Bettman in the old league offices in Manhattan in the fall of 1993, a few months after Bettman took office as commissioner.

One day Burke went into the bathroom and found Bettman picking up paper towels from the floor. Burke joked with his boss that there was actually someone whose job it was to look after that mess. Bettman whirled on Burke and asked if he knew what time that person started work.

No. Burke did not know.

That person came in after 5 p.m., and so until that time, anyone who came into the league office to do business with the NHL was going to use this bathroom, and Bettman wanted it to be clean, the commissioner explained.

It was a moment that even now, 20 years later, resonates with Burke, who moved on to run teams in Vancouver, Anaheim (where he won a Stanley Cup in 2007) and, most recently, in Toronto.

"He's just so bright and such a good leader," said Burke.

Bettman is not given to introspection, at least not public introspection, so whatever he remembers of his first day on the job, Feb. 1, 1993, he keeps to himself. Several days after taking the post, he would preside over his first All-Star Game, the last such game held at the historic Montreal Forum, and he recalled the excitement of that event and of the goals he and the owners set for themselves.

"I know that there were things we wanted to accomplish in terms of growing and stabilizing the game," he said.

At the time, there were 24 teams in the NHL and total revenues were in the $400 million range.

Glenn Healy, a former player and prominent member of the union both as a player and after his retirement, recalled that when Bettman took over, the New York Islanders' team payroll was $5 million. Today, there are 30 teams, and last season revenues topped the $3 billion mark, with an average player salary of $2.4 million.

When Healy thinks of the commissioner and his two decades on the job, there is one overriding impression.

"Well, I think he's made a lot of players a lot of money," Healy said.

NBA commissioner David Stern wasn't surprised that the NHL's governors hired his longtime friend, and he is likewise unsurprised that Bettman remains at the helm two decades later.

Although NHL officials explored various replacements for outgoing -- and deposed -- NHL commissioner Gil Stein, Stern said he knew that the NHL would need someone who knew the ins and outs of a professional sports league and that Bettman was the man to fill that void.

"I told the NHL they would come back to him," Stern said.

Stern, 70, took over his job exactly nine years before Bettman took his post with the NHL.

"And I still think of him as a kid," Stern admitted. "But the kid is no longer a kid."

In the spring of 1994, Healy was part of a New York Rangers squad that won a Stanley Cup. He recalled the team's visit to the White House the following year, after the first of the three lockouts that would mark Bettman's tenure as commissioner. Healy has a picture of then-President Bill Clinton joking around with Rangers captain Mark Messier. Off to the side of the frame is the new commissioner, his hands in his pockets.

At the time it might have been a question of, "Hey, who's that guy?" Healy said.

Not anymore.

"Things have changed just a little bit," said Healy, now one of the game's most respected analysts.

And it's not just the number of jobs -- which have increased 25 percent since Bettman took over -- and the amount of money generated by the league, but the different elements of the game that have evolved and improved, Healy said.

When the Canadian dollar was worth 60 to 70 cents against the American dollar, Bettman introduced a fund to help support Canadian franchises compete. That equalization fund "absolutely saved some of those Canadian teams," Healy said.

The hockey operations department has been expanded and has attracted top people to top positions.

"It's much more efficient than before [Bettman] got there," Healy said.

There is also Bettman's ability to find stable owners to prop up wobbling franchises in Tampa, Dallas, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, among others.

He has overseen the hiring of top staffers such as former NFL executive John Collins, whom Healy describes as a "50-goal scorer" and who has introduced the Winter Classic and the Premiere Games in Europe as well as the wildly popular HBO documentary series "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic."

Stacey Brook, lecturer and director of undergraduate studies at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, said that NHL franchise values have risen 9 percent since Bettman took over, a strong number compared to other forms of investment and other sectors of the economy.

While player costs have slightly outgrown revenues, Brook said the league has performed well overall since Bettman took over.

"I would say these have probably been the best 20 years financially for the NHL," said Brook, a lifelong Philadelphia Flyers fan.

Yet has there been a more polarizing figure in the game over the past 20 years than Gary Bettman?

Has there been a figure connected to the game who has evoked a more visceral reaction from players or fans than the commissioner?

After that first lockout left the league with a 48-game schedule in 1995, Bettman presided over a second lockout in 2004-05 that cost the league and its players and fans an entire season, including the playoffs; it was the first time a pro sports league lost an entire season to a labor dispute. But Bettman was determined to deliver to his owners cost certainty in the form of a salary cap, and that's what he got them.

It wasn't enough, of course, and this fall Bettman hit the lockout trifecta. Once again, an inability to resolve longstanding issues with the players' union left the league scrambling to wedge in a 48-game slate of games starting in January 2013.

Thanks to the explosion of social media, criticism of the league in general (and Bettman in particular) was at an all-time high.

Florida forward Kris Versteeg described Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly as "cancers."

Detroit defenseman Ian White called...
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