Bettman still getting the job done

Gary Bettman has seen his fair share of Stanley Cup presentations over the years. Bruce Bennet/Getty Images

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 ESPN.com 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 Bettman "an idiot."

Other players called for an end to Bettman's tenure.

Top players spoke to ESPN.com with great frustration at various points during the negotiations about how they believed that Bettman cared only about achieving a deal on his terms and that he didn't care about the game.

"Gary needs us to follow his script," one top player asserted.

Bettman, as he always does, downplayed those instances of name-calling and the personal attacks as being part of the emotional backdrop to any labor negotiations. And having been in the hotel meeting room in New York in the early-morning hours of Jan. 6 when the two sides reached a tentative agreement on a new CBA, the relief at having saved part of this season was palpable on both sides of the table.

It does not erase the stain of a lockout that need not have happened, but to suggest either side wasn't committed to getting a deal done is to ignore reality.

Still, at the risk of digging up well-plowed land, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone on either side of the labor fence who doesn't at least quietly acknowledge that the league's strategy of starting with a hard line offer in July was seriously flawed and was a catalyst to what would become a lengthy labor impasse.

"Was that first offer a good strategy? No. But he didn't make those numbers up himself," Healy said, referring to an initial proposal that, among other things, asked for the player share of revenues to drop from 57 percent to 46 percent and for hockey-related revenues to be redefined in favor of the owners. The players eventually agreed to a 50-50 revenue split.

Burke, fiercely loyal, believes the name-calling on the part of the players was unprofessional and points to the arc the league has followed since Bettman took office as an indication of his legacy.

"I don't understand it," Burke said of the criticism. "Gary has grown the game galactically. Not astronomically, not exponentially, Gary has grown the business galactically."

While the issues confronting Bettman's peers, including Stern, are in some ways constant -- television deals, labor issues, franchise health -- Stern acknowledged that Bettman's job has always involved elements that set it apart from baseball, football, basketball and pro soccer, namely the number of Canadian franchises and the importance of the sport to Canada.

Indeed, hockey has always been part sport, part cultural touchstone, part religion north of the 49th parallel. Add in the language issue in Quebec, where the Montreal Canadiens are front-page news 365 days a year, and you understand the distinct challenges that face Bettman and anyone who would assume the title of NHL commissioner, and why the boos rain down from fans in those cities.

"It's not a different job, but it has a different set of circumstances," Stern said.

No commissioner is immune to criticism -- how is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's week in New Orleans going? -- but Stern acknowledged that Bettman has shouldered that part of the job well.

"It comes with the territory and Gary just keeps on plugging," Stern said. "He's an incredibly hard worker who retains his sense of humor, which is indispensable."

Paul Kelly has known Bettman from the commissioner's early days and describes him as being "the personification of having broad shoulders."

Kelly first met Bettman shortly after he took office, when Kelly was a federal prosecutor building a case against former NHLPA boss Alan Eagleson. Later Kelly and Bettman would engage in some public sparring when Kelly represented Marty McSorley following McSorley's infamous attack on Donald Brashear and subsequent lengthy suspension by the commissioner.

In recent years, Kelly has spent a great deal of time with Bettman during Kelly's abbreviated term as head of the NHLPA.

Kelly recalled watching a New Jersey Devils game with Bettman and Daly shortly after taking over as head of the union, and how intently Bettman observed the action.

"I definitely believe he's a fan of the game," Kelly said.

As for the notion that Bettman is anti-Canadian, Kelly said he believes it is a myth.

"He's absolutely not anti-Canadian. He's pro-hockey," the Boston-area lawyer said.

Irrespective of feelings about whether Bettman has been a bane or a boon to the NHL, there is almost universal acknowledgement that the commissioner is as sharp as they come.

"In our dealings, I've disagreed with him at times, sometimes strongly, but I've found him right far more often than wrong. Of all the NHL presidents or commissioners I've seen or dealt with, as a fan, a player, an administrator, and a fan again -- Clarence Campbell, John Ziegler, and (briefly) Gil Stein -- Gary Bettman is easily the best," Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, a former team president in Toronto and best-selling author and essayist, wrote on Grantland.com in late 2011.

Burke said that within the NHL offices there was a standing joke that there was smart "and then there was Bettman smart."

"He's a very smart man. He thinks on his feet really quickly," Healy added. "He's one of those guys, you ask him if he wants a coffee and you end up buying him lunch."

There was much discussion during the lockout about whether this third shutdown of the game would mark the end of Bettman's reign. Or whether these often bitter labor disputes would forever define the commissioner's legacy.

But given the way fans have embraced the return of the game, selling out most buildings and generating record television viewership numbers, perhaps the labor issues aren't as significant as many believed they would be.

"I kid my students and I tell them if you want to increase attendance in the NHL, just cancel the games," Brook said, tongue-in-cheek.

But with labor peace established for at least eight years and possibly a full decade, perhaps Bettman's legacy is before him.

"The way the fans have reconnected with the game is extremely gratifying," Bettman said. And unlike early in the labor discussion, when it appeared the commissioner was banking on fans to return to the game no matter what happened, he was extremely careful to highlight the league's gratitude at the way fans have indeed embraced the game after the lockout.

"You never take anything for granted, and we didn't," Bettman said. Kelly, for one, believes these coming years -- with labor peace extending for as long as a decade -- might see the commissioner put a further stamp on his legacy by continuing to move the game forward. The league was on track to break new ground in terms of generating revenues and reaching new audiences, whether in Europe or through vehicles like a new stadium series of outdoor games or a revamped World Cup of Hockey.

In a series of independent studies commissioned by the NHL, hockey fans are wildly optimistic about the league's future.

This, despite the obvious concerns: soft spots with franchises in Florida and other Southern-expansion markets; the ongoing ownership fiasco in Phoenix, as the league has run the Coyotes for nearly four seasons and has had trouble selling the team; ownership struggles past and present in New Jersey, Tampa, Long Island and St. Louis; a failed return to Atlanta; and reports that as many as one-third of NHL teams are losing money. But there are also the positives of emerging markets like Seattle that covet an NHL team and a possible second team in the Toronto area (the city of Markham approved funds to build an NHL-style arena north of the city this week), plus plans to build an NHL-capable arena in Quebec City in the hopes of seeing the league return to the historic city, not to mention a 10-year, $2 billion contract with NBC.

Bettman might not be interested in engaging in the "Did you expect to be hanging around 20 years later?" conversation. But he certainly won't be fenced in by what will come next or, more to the point, how long he expects to carry on these duties.

"Now you're talking about my age," said Bettman, who turned 60 during last June's Stanley Cup finals. "And I don't think in those terms."

Instead, Bettman talks about the energy to pursue his job and the will to keep working to improve the game.

"As long as I still have that energy," Bettman said, "I don't think of doing anything else."