A hands-on skipper, Bettman often will insert his wisdom where it’s needed. Early in their growth, the Lightning suffered what seemed to be insoluble problems — including ownership issues. Now, under owner Jeff Vinik, the Lightning sell out every game.
“I watched Bettman turn Tampa Bay into a hockey town,” Larry Hirsch, a Florida-based veteran hockey play-by-play voice, told me. “Thanks to Bettman, the ‘impossible’ has happened. NHL players are developing in the South. Top scorer Auston Matthews learned to play in Arizona. Defenseman Jakob Chychrun got his start near Miami Beach.”
None of this was accomplished with exhaling ease. For the first 15 years of Bettman’s stewardship, he essentially had to put what had been a rudderless ship on a steady, corporate course. Plus, he had to deal with a team of diverse owners such as Howard Baldwin, who bought the Penguins before the 1991-92 season.
Baldwin: “I was there from Day One of his taking over as Commissioner. When Gary arrived, there were teams in trouble, but I found that he was incredibly respectful of each member team no matter what the financial circumstances were at the time. Over the years his creative vision escalated values beyond anyone’s imagination.”
To reach such a respected level, Bettman had to battle hard for cost certainty. Those were among Bettman’s most challenging times, but he never deviated from his goal and ultimately triumphed. Likewise, meetings with the League’s general managers have not been without controversy, nor admiration for the Commissioner.
“I admire his passion and love of the game,” longtime Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “I consider myself fortunate to have seen that passion and love up close during our meetings. Gary has the unique ability to continue to honor the past while — at the same time — he understands that the game is always evolving. He has shown tremendous vision when it comes to how to change along with it.”
When Bettman took command, he was determined to ensure that every franchise developed a strong fiscal foundation. As a result, as one insider put it, Bettman “has had a hand [in] bringing in every one of 30 out of the 32 league owners. (The only exceptions being the Jacobs family in Boston and Chicago’s Wirtz clan.) As a result, the League never has been on stronger fiscal footing.”
Many current and former NHL employees say the League is a great place to work.
National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Jessica Berman held a high NHL position for more than a decade. She explained three noteworthy points about Bettman.
1. Adjusting to 32 owners: “He’s done a masterful job balancing the needs of a wide-ranging group with their own challenges and opportunities. With the support of an incredible team, Gary has convinced everyone that growing the enterprise value of the League will benefit everyone, including players and fans. The basis of that is trust, which is built on consistency, transparency, communication and integrity.”
2. Bettman’s prime attributes: “Gary often is described as ‘the smartest person in the room’ and for good reason. He knows the business better than most and he’s able to stay focused on the right attitude in order to make the best possible decisions. He also gives incredible advice; and I am fortunate to be one of the many leaders who have benefited directly and indirectly from his incredible insight and guidance.”
3. How much longer he’ll continue: “I wouldn’t venture to guess. The short answer is, as long as he wants. He has proven his value and has earned the right to control his destiny.”
Another former colleague called Bettman “a sponge for information who wants to know every fact; the more esoteric the better because it helps his decision-making.”
“He’s a great human being and a brilliant human being.” Those are the words of early Bettman hire Burke in his autobiography, “Burke’s Law, A Life in Hockey.” “As a boss, he’s an amazing leader and he’s tough as nails. If you’re ever in a foxhole and you look over and Gary Bettman is in there with you, that’s a good thing. He’s fearless.
“And smart. We had a saying when I worked for the League — there’s smart, and then there’s Bettman smart. He’s on a whole other level. Visionaries look and see the next mountain and ask, ‘How do we get there?’ Gary looks ahead and sees six mountains. Working for him is like getting an MBA.”
The 2004-05 season cancellation — “work stoppage” in League parlance — was a necessity to cure festering fiscal problems. As a result, the League emerged healthier than ever. For Bettman, it was a case of pain and progress being inseparable.
Or, as one hockey onlooker said, “You certainly don’t cancel a season unless you have courage and a commitment to creating a better National Hockey League.”
Courage is the key word. Against all odds, Bettman was willing to stake his reputation on the success of such debatable expansion venues as Las Vegas, Seattle and Nashville. In each case they have become “hot” hockey towns, selling out every game on their schedule.
New York Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup-winning GM Neil Smith — now featured in the new “NHL Wraparound” podcast — offered the following appraisal:
“When you look at the business growth and franchise values of the 24 teams from 1993 until today — and look at additional teams and overall growth of the NHL — one can only marvel at the leadership Gary has provided during his remarkable 31 years as Commissioner.”
Ironically, Bettman’s basic training under NBA commissioner David Stern helped jump start Bettman’s ice career. Or, as an associate noted, “His vision is better and clearer than any optometrist’s. He knows that constant innovation and reinvention in the right areas are essential for continued growth and appeal.”
One contentious decision was the Commissioner’s endorsement — and continuous support — of the shootout after regular-season overtime, derided by some foes as “a skills competition.” But it provides an extra attraction, a 1-on-1 thriller for the fans.
And it was Bettman who encouraged the idea of having outdoor and overseas games, which have been such smash hits; franchises continue to line up to be a part of them.