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Man you love to hate: Gary Bettman's 20 NHL years

Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

He's taken lots of hits, but like it or not, Gary Bettman has been fulfilling his mission for two decades.

On February 1, 1993, Gary Bettman walked through the glass doors of the NHL's offices on the 33rd Floor of 650 Fifth Avenue in New York City for his first day as commissioner. In the two decades since, he has overseen the most dramatic transformation the league has ever experienced both on and off the ice.

While team owners had asked the five league presidents who had preceded him to play a more laissez faire caretaker role, Bettman was the first chief operating officer who was given a mandate to generate change. Not even Clarence Campbell, who oversaw the NHL's great expansion -- tripling its size in 1967 from six teams clustered in one quadrant of North America to 18 franchises by 1974 -- was as proactive a figure as Bettman.

And as the catalyst, Bettman has become a lightning rod of controversy because, well, that's hockey. Each change he makes is fiercely debated and even when hockey doesn't change, there is great fussing. Bettman has often wished that fans and the media would disregard the disputes about the game's business -- and perhaps that is how fans of the NBA, where Bettman began his career in sports, react to off-court matters. But hockey's fundamental passions never remain confined to the ice.

Those passions can make any assessment of Gary Bettman's performance as commissioner tricky. But someplace between his supporters' belief that he's a deity and his critics' cartoon image of him as a clueless, bungling despot there is a more measured view. That's a perspective rarely expressed, but it's one that Jonathon Gatehouse of Canada's MacLean's magazine largely achieved in his well-researched, critically acclaimed 2012 book, Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever.

Using Gatehouse's work as a jumping off point, this 20th anniversary of Bettman taking control of the NHL seems like a good time to offer some thoughts of my own. First, it must be said that I briefly worked for Bettman at the NHL in 1993. I was director of broadcasting when he came in and I left (not of my own accord) shortly before the 1993-94 season started. I've written often about him over the years and on at least one occasion was publicly attacked by a league spokeswoman who dismissed my criticism as being that of a disgruntled ex-employee. I can't change my employment history and, because of it, I have always taken great care to be fair in my judgments of the state of the league under Bettman's watch. You can make your own judgments on that with respect to what follows.

Bettman begins: A snapshot of the world in 1993

The new blueprint

As a former NHL employee, and a fan for more than 50 years, I'm constantly impressed by how Bettman has built the league into a large, modern sports organization. During my period there, we had severely limited resources and a bare bones staff. The Board of Governors historically cringed at diverting revenue to the league operation, so getting it to change that mindset ranks as a major achievement.

In 1993, the business was changing, which is why new leadership was needed in the first place. There was much money to be made by putting the game on a more contemporary business footing and being more aggressive was the way to make it. Much of what constitutes today's NHL -- starting with the business' growth from $400 million in 1993 to $3.3 billion last year, with increased sponsorships, licensing and TV revenue, plus things like NHL.com, the NHL Network and staging the Winter Classic -- is the bounty of a muscular work force and it all would have been unthinkable pre-Bettman. He doubtless would have refused the job had the owners not agreed to allow him to expand the cadre of employees to something approaching the levels he knew from the NBA.

Yet, there was no shortage of mechanical thinking at the start as Bettman tried copying what worked elsewhere.

The new commissioner and his first staff held great suspicion of hockey's traditions, suspicions that were triggered by a belief that "old thinking" had retarded the game's growth. There was no recognition of the fact that hockey was a very different animal than the others in the sports landscape. Borrow some of this, and some of that, and the NHL would supposedly be on its way.

The junking of the historic names for the league's divisions (Patrick, Adams, Smythe, Norris) and replacing them with the identical geographic labels used by the NBA (Atlantic, Northeast, Central, Pacific) was symptomatic of that and may have disheartened some fans and observers. But that wasn't as wrongheaded as, say, the introduction of hideous, garish third jerseys, promoting pro roller hockey leagues (the supposed parallel to street basketball), or sponsoring a NASCAR vehicle. Much was wasted on some of those endeavors.

The strangest exponent of all the "new thinking" was the TV marriage with FOX. That network was overhauling televised sports through nonstop gimmicks, graphics and noise -- Gatehouse calls it, "sports for the ADD generation." It meant American hockey fans had to suffer dancing robots and glowing pucks. Gatehouse chronicles some of the changes FOX execs asked the NHL to make, including moving to two halves from three periods and having longer commercial timeouts. FOX was not alone; Disney, which owned the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim -- named for their film, the ultimate in marketing gimmickry -- proposed bigger nets, players removing their helmets on the bench, and a ban on fighting. Bettman wisely didn't go that far.

Still, he was driven by research more than any innate understanding of hockey or its culture, and some suspect that he's still deficient in those areas. Many attempts to expand the game's audience in Bettman's early years sought to turn the league into a fad, even branding the NHL as "The Coolest Game on Ice." And, like Fox's hockey audience, those efforts largely fizzled.

Real growth only started when the league discovered why its longtime fans were so loyal, what they found intrinsically special about the game, and began bringing more of that to the party, which was the point of my 1998 article in The New York Times that the NHL deemed so objectionable.

GALLERY:Bettman era issues

Getting it right

The Winter Classic game on New Year's Day has been the grandest expression of the sport's, and the league's, traditions from the outdoor setting to the throwback uniforms, but it has smartly brought hockey into the 21st Century.

Chief Operating Officer John Collins is credited with creating the event, although its origins are in the 2001 Michigan-Michigan State outdoor game and the 2003 Montreal Canadiens-Edmonton Oilers Heritage Classic. Still, Collins figured out how to make it work as a U.S. TV property, and Bettman's hiring of him to oversee league marketing -- easily the commissioner's best personnel move along with deputy Bill Daly -- signaled a revised approach to packaging the game, one that no longer dismissed the past as being a key to the future.

NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol hailed the Winter Classic as "the single most successful new venture on the American sports landscape in the past decade." And Gatehouse writes, "A national audience (was) discovered by playing up hockey's northern past rather than its Sunbelt present."

Bettman is often wrongly blamed for the league's Sunbelt strategy. In fact, it grew out of Wayne Gretzky's trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, which provided evidence that hockey could succeed in warm weather climates. The owners began drawing up expansion plans with their "Vision For The '90s" report that identified potential new markets for the league. San Jose, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Florida were all in the NHL prior to Bettman taking over. It was a strategy that whoever ran the league was going to implement.

Of course, Bettman agreed and wanted to grow the NHL's U.S. TV footprint. The league's national TV deals in the States had long been dwarfed by those of the other pro sports leagues and his aim was to fill out the map to give networks more potential markets. One reason he has wanted Phoenix to survive is its status as the nation's 12th largest TV market. (Atlanta, now gone from the NHL map, is ninth). While the NHL's TV deals continue to lag well behind the others, Bettman has been dogged and creative in getting the best available agreements. The current contract with NBC Sports Network, while no windfall, is the league's best ever by far.

The outsider

Bettman's singular contribution in the rush to new markets was not through expansion however, as much as franchise relocation. There are few more damaging things in sports than taking a team from its fans, and during his tenure, Minnesota, Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford became Dallas, Colorado (a second attempt there after the Rockies failed), Phoenix and Carolina. In each case, ownership wanted a new arena or a better arena deal that wasn't forthcoming in its original locale and each locale felt aggrieved that Bettman didn't do enough to keep the club in town. One of Gatehouse's main themes is Canada's fear of losing its game to an uncaring population to the south through the work of an "outsider" in charge of the league.

To Bettman's credit, teams eventually returned to Minnesota and Winnipeg, and Quebec may not be far behind. And as much as he's derided for championing the game in new markets, it has created the laudatory byproduct of building youth hockey in those cities. More top-level athletes in those locales now eschew football or baseball in favor or hockey to the sport's great benefit.

And then, Bettman morphed into a commissioner who loathed moving teams -- and that began in Canada, where every remaining franchise except Toronto experienced difficulties. Whether due, as Gatehouse writes, to his being shaken by Canada's response to losing franchises, the close relationship Bettman forged with Calgary's Harley Hotchkiss, Chairman of the Board of Governors, or --- an avenue that Gatehouse doesn't explore -- the fear that further erosion of Canadian teams might endanger lucrative TV contracts, or all of the above, Bettman began advocating for endangered clubs in the late '90s with as much zeal as he exhibited for growing the U.S. footprint. This extended to American franchises as well.

The commissioner became a leading voice and lobbyist for keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the Predators in Nashville, the Islanders in Nassau County (until last fall, at least) and -- forever, it has seemed, the Coyotes in remote Glendale -- although that sad situation continues and should never have been allowed to develop. Bettman bears some responsibility for not insisting that the Coyotes relocate to Scottsdale where they could have thrived. Nevertheless, on both sides of the border, Bettman's many efforts, which Gatehouse details, to keep teams in place and help broker deals between owners and cities seem inexhaustible.

Unfortunately, Bettman's strong grasp of business matters is not always equaled by his grasp of hockey itself. No one has ever said that he was a hockey expert, and he's made some embarrassing gaffes through the years. Even though he delegates hockey decisions to others, he's still the commish, wields unprecedented power and is ultimately responsible for what happens on the ice.

Falling into the trap

The "Dead Puck Era" -- the decline of scoring and general entertainment value of the on-ice product -- has to be laid at his feet. The success of trapping defenses, which began in earnest in 1994 when the Devils nearly advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, spread like a virus throughout the game. New Jersey won the Cup the next year, and from then until the lockout of 2004, watching the NHL became a chore. In fact, national TV ratings in the U.S. steadily declined during that period, a clear sign that all was not well.

But Bettman continued to tell critics that all was well -- the product was fine, the fans loved it and they were filling the arenas. Calls for opening up the game by eliminating the two-line offside, for example, resounded, but it seems that Bettman was either in denial, or he couldn't distinguish good hockey from boring hockey. The people he trusted for advice on such matters either benefitted from the trap, lacked the foresight to see where the sport was heading, or were cowed into being yes-men. For all the "new thinking" he encouraged, when it came to how the game was played, Bettman essentially adopted the NHL's unofficial motto of the earlier laissez faire era: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Of course, it was broken, and rebooting the NHL through "new rules" after the 2004-05 lockout proved it. The current game -- based on speed and skill, not clutch and grab -- has proved to be far more popular and crowd-pleasing with TV ratings to match. It is questionable, however, if those changes would ever have been implemented had an entire season not vanished during the work stoppage and Bettman not been desperate to win fans back. He told Gatehouse that the lockout was needed to re-imagine the game, but that seems like the rearview mirror talking. There was little if any indication before 2004 that Bettman or anyone in Hockey Operations recognized how badly things had deteriorated and needed a makeover.

Post-lockout No. 2, Bettman has been somewhat more proactive. The establishment of summer R&D camps for testing proposed rule changes showed some initiative and, as with marketing matters, reveal his capacity for better-late-than-never adjustments.

Still, changes on the ice can come slowly.

The ugly epidemic

Bettman put the NHL well ahead of the curve on concussion research in the late '90s. But when questioned prior to 2010 about the league's long unease with implementing rules to curb head hits, he inevitably raised its pioneering research role to prove the NHL's concern, as if it compensated for its hesitant action. For Bettman, lawyerly truth-spinning frequently emerges when the truth itself is less flattering.

In examining the circumstances and aftermath of Zdeno Chara's vicious hit on Max Pacioretty in March, 2011, Gatehouse reviews the outcry from many corners of the hockey community after Chara was excused with a mere fine from Hockey Operations. It was the climax of a wave of on-ice violence during the preceding few months and the league seemed typically slow to react. Even corporate sponsors like Air Canada objected and threatened to withdraw. Bettman fired back that the airline had that right, just as the league had the right to cancel its multi-million dollar business with the airline.

Canadiens president Geoff Molson issued a statement disagreeing with the Chara ruling and calling for greater concern about player safety, saying he'd take a leading role in the effort. Gatehouse reports that Molson received "a blistering call from the commissioner." So did Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who spoke out on a radio interview.

"For the briefest of moments, it seemed like a movement would be building -- even within the game's most conservative constituencies -- to eliminate on-ice thuggery. Then Bettman turned his guns on his critics and shot them down."

Days later, at the GMs meeting, Bettman pulled together a five-point plan to address safety issues, steps that had been in the works for a while and were now dressed up to appear like a rapid response.

Public image, Ltd.

While he likes to micromanage the league's message -- keeping owners in check is a big part of that -- many people find Gary Bettman's overall antagonistic style to be off-putting and offensive. His supporters maintain that he can be sociable and pleasant, but his public demeanor is frequently confrontational and uneasy, making him a ready target for critics and boo-birds. Gatehouse cites numerous examples of his being thin-skinned and vindictive, traits he's directed toward nearly every category of person in the hockey community. There are tales of sympathetic media members being rewarded with scoops while less friendly pundits risk losing access.

(Yet, Bettman does not always hold a grudge. After a bitter feud, he did mend fences with former referee Andy Van Hellemond, hiring him as director of officiating at one point. And personally, I can attest that my various criticisms in the media have not impacted my access.)

Most of us prefer leaders who exhibit more grace but, whatever personality quirks Bettman has -- and we all have some -- considering the constant barrage of complaints and condemnations he must face, his siege mentality is somewhat understandable, if not always preferable or commendable. What is commendable is his public visibility, whether at an arena or taking calls on his satellite radio show. None of his predecessors were as accessible.

It's in labor relations that Bettman's best and worst qualities come to the fore. He was primarily hired, after all, to bring an NBA-type salary cap to the NHL and to represent the owners in their dealings with the players, the league having lost the cozy relationship it previously enjoyed with the NHLPA during Alan Eagleson's tenure. If Bob Goodenow was to be difficult, Bettman was eminently gifted to respond in kind. He ultimately triumphed over Goodenow and fractured the union, something in which any owner's negotiator would take pride.

In Donald Fehr, Bettman may have met his match. For many, the 2012-13 lockout episodes that stick out most were those featuring Bettman's temper in media briefings. Supporters excused him, saying he was outraged and frustrated by Fehr's stalling tactics and constantly-changing demands. Funny thing: Gatehouse relates the story of CBC negotiator Richard Stursberg who, in trying to make the 2005 deal with the NHL, found Bettman regularly engaged in stalling tactics and constantly changing demands.

Gatehouse's book provides an exceptional chronicle of the NHL's first two lockouts during Bettman's tenure and how his naiveté and egoism failed him in 1994-95, but his incredible preparation and persistence paid off 10 years later. One hopes that the commissioner, who has yet to avoid locking out players while negotiating an NHL CBA, can help forge a better working relationship with the players union going forward, one that avoids a fourth stoppage.

His due

There's no sense rehashing the most recent lockout except to say that the preparations, conditions, and tactics that led to victory in 2004-05 didn't seem evident or effective this time.

There was no clear articulation of what the owners wanted compared to the last lockout. In general, the teams -- which had let many contracts expire the last time, creating a large pool of anxious free agents -- didn't help matters by not only conducting business as usual, but by signing players to huge, long-term contracts that undercut the league's position that it needed financial givebacks. On top of that, the NHL proposed that it would not honor those new contracts. The now infamous CBA first proposal did nothing to help gain player trust and most of the league's maneuvers only increased player solidarity. It seemed as if the owners didn't recognize Fehr's exceptional organizational skills and couldn't adjust. But that's all behind us now.

Bettman was roundly vilified for calling NHL fans the best in the world on the eve of the lockout, and many threatened to stay away after the new CBA deal was reached, but it looks like they've returned in full throat. He wasn't wrong. He may be booed louder than ever when he hands out the Stanley Cup in late June, but he's not the villain many people think he is.

What Gary Bettman does is represent the owners' interests in a difficult and ever-shifting economic environment. That's what he was hired to do and it's a huge, complex job. At much of it, he excels; at some of it, not so much. But he certainly does it well enough to keep walking through the door at the league's office and that's not likely to change for some time.

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