On a melting morning in January at a Montreal boulangerie where the heavy chandeliers are as spectacular as the airy croissants, Kevin Tierney is discussing one of his movies. Tierney co-wrote and produced Bon Cop, Bad Cop, a 2006 bilingual comedy that remains one of the top-grossing Canadian films. It's in the police/buddy genre, with the mismatched partners hailing from opposite sides of Canada's linguistic and geopolitical divide. The plot centers around a crazed fan seeking revenge because big league hockey teams such as the Quebec Fleur-de-Lys are moving south of the border. On his hit list is the commissioner, Harry Buttman, played by a 4'7" actor in a cheap wig—a thinly veiled caricature of the NHL's diminutive commissioner, Gary Bettman.
This is an article from the March 11, 2013 issue
"All English Canadians have opinions about French Canadians, and all French Canadians have opinions about English Canadians," says Tierney, 62, working on his second coffee. "And all Canadians share an opinion about hockey: Americans have sold out our game.... At the center is this Napoleonic figure. Gary codifies the ugly American, a greedy f--- who stole our game and put it in s---faced American towns where they don't care." Tierney pauses, flashing a grin tinged with mischief. "Essentially [the name Buttman] is the equivalent of a fart joke. But Gary's easy to caricature. Instant. Just add water and stir."
Like the bon cop and the bad cop, Bettman knows both sides of the street after 20 years on the beat. At his pay grade, a reported $8 million a year, Bettman is required to be both the firm-handshake leader who represents the business of the league and the foam-finger guy who poses as the No. 1 booster of the game, toggling among owners, sponsors, networks, players and fans while keeping all these stakeholders enthused. "The complex human algorithm," NBA commissioner David Stern calls the job. Those requisites do not distinguish Bettman from Stern or the NFL's Roger Goodell or MLB's Bud Selig. Bettman's job might seem less consequential than some of his counterparts—NFL revenues exceeded the NHL's $3.3 billion by 188% in 2011--12—but it is infinitely more complex than most. With 23 teams in the U.S. and seven in Canada, he must confront a variety of borders—geographic, cultural and even linguistic—as well as a yawning divide between where the power lies and where the passion runs deepest: His league is on the periphery of the American experience for many, in the marrow of Canadian life for most.
Bettman is a human Rorschach test, a man who practically begs for a response. Says Kevin Westgarth, the Hurricanes enforcer who was a member of the NHLPA's negotiating committee, "Not many hockey fans would waffle or not have an opinion on Bettman." While he has grown the footprint of his league in the U.S., many in Canada want to leave their footprints on his prostrate body. He has been called the worst commissioner in sports history. He also has made the NHL a thoroughly modern league, expanding it from a licensing company into a media company.
At 5'7"—not 4'7"—Bettman is a small but inviting target after three lockouts, including one canceled season. The numbers will be etched on his tombstone. But Bettman, 60, is very much alive. His current deal runs through 2016--17, one year before the NHL's centennial season, and he has received multiple contract extensions since he took over on Feb. 1, 1993. He says his health is good. When the new CBA expires in 10 years (or eight, if either side exercises the reopener clause), Bettman could still be there for aggrieved players to kick around. Or vice versa.
During the lockout, Stars winger Erik Cole, a veteran of the previous two, ordered 30 caps emblazoned WITH PUCK GARY. (The slogan is not exactly an ode to the workin' man, but provocative headgear has limitations.) Cole handed most out at NHLPA practices. Three remain. They are tucked in a closet, like resentment toward Bettman now that the truncated season, which began on Jan. 19, is half over.
The anger was visceral. Red Wings defenseman Ian White assailed Bettman as "an idiot." Panthers winger Kris Versteeg called Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly "cancers" and said they should resign. Canadiens left wing Brandon Prust tweeted, "bettman's autobiography is in stores now. It's titled 'how I destroyed a sport and a nation.'" (Hint: The nation wasn't Luxembourg.) And Blackhawks center Dave Bolland re-tweeted a fan's "can I get a RT for wanting Bettman dead?" The last was a faint echo of Chris Chelios's chilling remark early in the 1994 lockout, when the Chicago defenseman said, "If I was Bettman, I'd be worrying about my family, my well-being."
"For the players, this wasn't an owners' lockout, it was 'f------ Gary's lockout,'" says ex-Canadiens winger Mathieu Darche, of the union's negotiating committee, who retired last month. "Fair? Probably not."
The players have retreated. Strategically, at least. Versteeg volunteers that it was tasteless to compare the commissioner to a malignancy. When the question of Bettman's resignation is raised, however, Versteeg says, "I've not given it any thought. If I ever give it any thought again, it might be around the time we're negotiating the next CBA."
When he announced the labor settlement at 5 a.m. on Jan. 6, Bettman looked the way any grandfather who had just pulled an all-nighter might. Exhausted. On Feb. 26 in his 15th-floor Manhattan office, in dark suit pants and a crisp white dress shirt, left foot propped on a coffee table, he appeared invigorated, a man comfortable in his seemingly thick skin. As an undergraduate at Cornell in the early 1970s, Bettman studied industrial and labor relations. He grasps the dynamic, knows the drill. "How many times [do] CEOs involved in labor disputes have nasty things said about them by people who they are disputing with?" Bettman asks, shrugging. "Happens all the time."
Aside from the lax NHL background check that allowed fraud artist John Spano to temporarily take control of the Islanders in 1996--97, and Bettman's intransigence on the league's so-called Sun Belt strategy, the bare-bones case for Bettman as the sorriest commissioner in the history of sports is this: Lockout I in 1994, which cancelled 468 games; Lockout II, which resulted in the lost season of 2004--05, and which saw ownership achieve a 24% salary rollback, institute a salary cap and do everything to the NHLPA except steal its tires and put it up on blocks; and Lockout III, which saw the players' share of hockey-related revenue go from 57% to 50%. The Bettman years, like world wars, are marked by Roman numerals.
This season the NHL lost 510 games even though management and player sources, while vehemently blaming the other side, agree that an earlier settlement was possible given that the ultimate 50-50 split of revenue always seemed like a foregone conclusion. This labor impasse was informed almost as much by the union's need to restore self-respect under executive director Donald Fehr—the fifth NHLPA director in the last eight years—as it was by ownership's desire to spackle holes in the flawed '05 agreement. But these were lockouts, not strikes, even if NHL executives always refer to them as "work stoppages." Bettman owns them.
The lockouts are jagged shards, characterizing a tenure in which Bettman has inarguably benefited ownership long term but roiled the game short term. Nevertheless, the game already seems to be roaring back. (According to announced attendance, arenas are filled to 97.3% of capacity, and revenues are projected to be $2.4 billion for the shortened season.) Bettman took over a $400 million enterprise and has grown it eightfold, into a $3.3 billion league. But David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC's Marshall School of Business, says, "Where it gets tricky is how much greater growth there would have been with labor stability. Maybe it could have been a $4 billion or even a $5 billion business."
Still, the balance sheet flatters a commissioner who landed hockey's great white whale—an American network-TV contract. In 1994, Bettman returned the NHL to over-the-air TV in the U.S. for the first time since 1975 with a $155 million deal with Fox, and, in 2011, he upgraded with a 10-year, $2 billion deal from NBC. The NHL also expanded by four teams under Bettman (the Predators, Thrashers, Blue Jackets and Wild); the Anaheim and Florida franchises predate him by a day. Some clubs wobble—there is a chasm between economic powerhouses like the Maple Leafs and black holes like the league-owned Coyotes—but expansion has added 100 or so jobs for a union that held the commissioner in such public disdain two months ago. The average league salary in Bettman's first full season was $558,000. Last year the average NHL salary was $2.45 million.
"If you're an employee and your institution's bottom line had gone up like that," former Sabres president Larry Quinn says, "you'd be looking at this leader and saying, 'Isn't he great?'"
"[Bettman will] go down as one of the greatest commissioners in pro sports," says Rodney Fort, professor of sports management at Michigan. "If you consider his job description"—he is employed by the owners, whose share of hockey-related revenue has increased from 25% to 50% since Lockout II—"he has been completely masterful."
So Bettman is not the worst commissioner in history. He probably rates as the best NHL commissioner-president, although that bar had been set so low, even he wouldn't be able to limbo under it (page 57). Love or loathe Bettman, before his arrival this well-heeled gentlemen's club masquerading as a league seemed a couple of VW Beetles shy of a clown college. In 1992 the NHL had fewer than 50 employees. Now there are more than 450. Hockey's Potemkin village became a solid structure beyond the bricks and mortar of the league's principal headquarters in New York City and of its satellite office in Toronto.
Bettman likes to say that a bell can't be unrung. And while he reflexively salutes hockey's history, the past does not seem to tug hard on his sleeve. From the moment the Adams, Patrick, Norris and Smythe divisions, and Wales and Campbell conferences, were relabeled with geographical names in 1993 to make them, in Bettman's words, "more accessible," most of the game's sepia-tinted memories were tucked on a high shelf with other hockey bric-a-brac—unless, of course, they could be monetized.
Every January since 2008 (in nonlockout years) the NHL vividly celebrates an al fresco past that never actually existed—at least for the professional game. The Winter Classic, embroidered by HBO's 24/7 series, already has become the most significant regular-season game in North American sports.
The concept for the outdoor extravaganza was poached from college hockey (Michigan--Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6, 2001) and championed by league COO John Collins. Collins, hired by Bettman in '06, has nudged the NHL to focus on big events during the regular season. Considering the goals-per-game average under Bettman has leaked from 6.48 to 5.38 at week's end—post--Lockout II rule tweaks have not killed the Dead Puck Era—pizzazz is welcome. "The [U.S. is] looking for offensive hockey," Quinn says. "So is TV. People became fans because of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Gilbert Perreault."
There have been widely hailed Bettman successes, like the NHL's Olympic participation, and others, like a diversity program, that have largely gone unnoticed. In between there have been some cringe-inducing moments, notably the 2008 radio interview in which Bettman confused Ace Bailey with Ace Bailey. (Irvine [Ace] Bailey, a Maple Leafs winger, retired in 1933 because of a fractured skull after an Eddie Shore check, an incident that led to the creation of the All-Star Game—as a benefit—the following year. Garnet [Ace] Bailey, a 1970s forward and later the Kings scouting director, died on United Airlines Flight 175 on 9/11.) This was a self-made gotcha moment. In the context of the All-Star Game, Bettman volunteered that the elder Bailey, who died of natural causes in 1992, perished when his plane crashed into the World Trade Center. The commissioner was trumped by an Ace.
Bettman might have a paint-by-numbers feel for the game on the ice, but after two decades, and with the panoramic view of the sport his position affords him, he certainly qualifies as a hockey guy. In the broadest sense, he is the ultimate hockey guy. "Some people still see him as a basketball guy," says Sportsnet commentator John Shannon, the NHL's executive VP of programming and production from 2006 to '09. "Are you kidding me?"
Hockey guy or hockey hostage taker? Actually the commissioner is both—at least in Canada, a country that is simultaneously the rock of Bettman's game and the pebble in his shoe.
Bettman has saved at least a couple of scuffling Canadian franchises. He also has swung the truncheon, relocating two others to American cities. All commissioners are afflicted with intransigent problems—"Steroids, Bud. Concussions, Roger," Stern says—and most of the arrows aimed at Bettman seem to come from one place. Bettman calls this assertion "a media creation," but former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who worked for Bettman from 1993 to '98 as the executive VP of hockey operations, says, "His image in Canada is so unfair."
Canada's suspicion of the commissioner formed early in his tenure when the Quebec Nordiques left for Denver in 1995 and the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix the following year. It was reinforced more than a decade later when the NHL blocked Jim Balsillie, the former CEO of Canadian telecommunications giant Research in Motion (since renamed BlackBerry), from buying a U.S.-based team and moving it to southern Ontario. Bettman's unwillingness to be railroaded by Balsillie, who started a website to promote a seventh team in Canada, clashed with the country's proprietary view of hockey. Bettman hates Canada. Q.E.D.
To embrace this theory you must ignore at least two things: 1) Bettman gave the country its coveted seventh team when he returned the NHL to Winnipeg, moving the Thrashers from Atlanta in 2011 ("Right a wrong," the commissioner called it); and 2) more significantly, he developed the Canadian Assistance Plan, spanning from 1995 to 2004, which transferred money to the Oilers, Flames, Senators and, briefly, the Canucks to offset the debilitating effects of the Canadian dollar, which at the time traded as low as $0.62.
"That was an exercise in big-picture thinking," says Cal Nichols, board chairman of the group that owned the Oilers from 1998 to 2007. "Gary could have allowed natural attrition—the U.S. economy and the dollar were significantly stronger than ours—but he knew Canada was hockey country. There was a lot of pushback [from U.S. teams], but Gary had pretty good vision."
"The game is a bigger deal in Canada than, I think, football and baseball combined are in the United States," Bettman says. "The game's presence is palpable on a moment-by-moment basis."
On the macroeconomic scale, rewards for his Canadian support have been significant. The country's dollar has roared back to near par with its U.S. cousin, helping drive league-wide revenues. And since Lockout II, every Canadian team besides Edmonton and Ottawa, which Bettman backed after the Senators declared bankruptcy in 2003, has sold out every game. But the backslapping for Bettman, beyond tumultuous applause in Edmonton during the '06 Stanley Cup finals and a salute in Winnipeg when he returned the franchise, has been minimal. While he says fans who approach him in arenas are rarely anything but engaging, jeering the commissioner during the presentation of the Cup has become almost as much a ritual as roars during "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Chicago. At least he has a sense of humor. Once in the concourse between periods at Madison Square Garden, a fan yelled, "Bettman, you're an idiot!" The commissioner turned to his wife and said, "Shelli, what have you done to upset that man?"
That is the question. What has Bettman done to alienate fans? Is it something as concrete as lockouts or is it something as intangible as his mien or manner? Bettman does not present as a prototypical pound-a-coupla-Molsons-with-the-guys guy, especially when juxtaposed with other Ivy League--educated attorneys such as Burke, a graduate of Harvard Law who was once a minor league winger, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who was a running back at Dartmouth. "Bill engages you in conversations that seem real," says Panthers enforcer George Parros, an NHLPA negotiating committee member. "Gary talks like a lawyer, to get a point across. It doesn't seem genuine."
"Imagine if he had a different face, a different look, some charm, some charisma," says former Kings owner Bruce McNall. "He'd be viewed in an entirely different light. If he had a personality like [Bill] Clinton...."
There are countless friends and business associates who swear by Bettman. ("There's a little bit of arrogance in him that sometimes doesn't help," says Marcel Aubut, the former principal owner of the Nordiques, "but people who know him understand he has a big heart.") There are agitated players who swore at him during the most recent lockout, in which intransigence on both sides burned, according to Bettman, about $20 million a day. ("I'm not looking to be incendiary here," says Parros, "but he's done some things to hold the game hostage.") Bettman wears a snug carapace of defensiveness. (Unprompted, he notes that he is booed only when the visitors win the Cup.) Unlike Stern, he is not adept at disarming critics when a spasm of on-ice idiocy brings hockey into the harsh public glare. If the commissioner emits an off-putting aura of being the smartest guy in the room, maybe it's because he often is. Hours before he and Fehr decided not to Thelma & Louise the whole season, Bettman engaged Mathieu Darche in a private conversation in which he shocked the fourth-liner by knowing Darche's educational background; his brother J.P., who had been an NFL long snapper from 2000 to '09; and language laws governing schooling in Quebec, where he lives with his wife and two children. Darche says, "I swear he scouted me."
Bettman always has been thrust-and-parry in interviews, utterly in control. "There was one time in my four years there that he didn't know the answer to a question that he [had] asked," Shannon says, "and that was something highly technical." When his knowledge of Darche's schooling—prep school at Choate, college at McGill—is praised as a happy surprise in an interview, Bettman is mock offended that he wouldn't know. Not content to win negotiations, Bettman likes to win discussions.
"If the measure of any sport is work stoppages, then you've got how many since '95 in the NBA?" Bettman asks. (Four.) "How many has football had?" (One.) "What about the period when baseball had eight work stoppages [from 1972 to '95], five of which were strikes? Without going through the psychodrama of what happened ... was [the NHL lockout] necessary? Was it worth it? When you're making these decisions, you can't make them looking at the short term. If someone wants to define my work here as work stoppages, that should [hold] true for any commissioner and the people on the other side of the table.
"At the end of the day, what was the result?"