Bettman's legacy: The good, the bad and the ugly of Gary Bettman's 25-year NHL tenure

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is aiming to avoid another work stoppage as the league attempts to settle collective bargaining issues with its players. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Watching Gary Bettman's introduction as NHL commissioner 25 years later is like watching the first concerts for one of his favorite classic rock bands, like The Doors or the Grateful Dead.

He's strikingly young -- 40 years old at the time of his hiring away from the NBA, looking a bit like "The Office"-era Steve Carell -- but you can see the same moves he has perfected in subsequent years. The way he looks off to the side before delivering a "however" in answering questions. The way most answers pivot from "the needs of the owners" to some variation on "our fans are the best fans." He exhibits the same confidence he still maintains in speaking today, but without the sassy attitude.

He sat a table in a West Palm Beach, Florida, hotel draped in standard-issue linens, with an NHL banner hanging in back of him. It looked like a city council meeting in the same way that Bettman's news conferences -- during which he frequently stands at a podium with a teleprompter -- look presidential and polished.

On Feb. 1, 1993, the first commissioner in NHL history -- a necessary title change to differentiate from the ineffectual presidents of bygone years -- laid out his vision for the game. He wanted a salary cap. He wanted to increase the NHL's footprint. He wanted to be progressive in a way the league's conservative "old boys' club" wasn't. He thought TV was the key to the whole thing working. Most of all, he wanted to change public perception of the NHL.

"We're going to have to improve the way we are perceived, the way we are followed, the way we look. We can be worthy of attention," Bettman said.

For 25 years, Gary Bettman has been the center of attention in the NHL. Here's the good and the bad of his tenure as commissioner.

GOOD: Making the NHL grow up

When Bettman was named the NHL's first commissioner, he took over a league office that was stunningly short on league officers. He expanded the staff, including a key hire in Brian Burke as vice president of hockey operations, and consolidated his people in Manhattan, leading the NHL into a more corporate and polished approach like the one he experienced while working in the NBA. That included transforming the league's board of governors meetings from cocktail hours on Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz's yacht into formal, agenda-driven discussion periods that Bettman organized and run, as they still are today.

BAD: His public persona

"BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Oh, hey, listen to that: It's the sound of Gary Bettman walking onto the ice to crown a new champion and invite its captain to hoist the Stanley Cup. The fact is that, away from the public, Bettman is actually a rather charismatic, insightful and humorous guy. But as the de facto face of the NHL for the past 25 years, his very presence inspires Pavlovian jeering -- which, frankly, is by design, as the hired lightning rod for the owners' unpopular whims. That said, he's probably the second most popular commissioner (behind the NBA's Adam Silver) of the four major pro sports leagues.

GOOD: Revenue growth

The contrast couldn't be starker. In 1993-94, NHL revenues were $732 million. In 2017-18, revenue was projected at $4.54 billion. In 1993-94, the annual player salary averaged $558,000. By 2015-16, that number was at $2.9 million. Gary Bettman has helped make a lot of people a lot of money during his tenure, and he helped find hockey new revenue streams along the way.

BAD: The canceled season

It doesn't matter what benefits it eventually yielded, or how Bettman and his supporters frame it as a necessity for the league's current health. The 2004-05 lockout was the first time a major pro sports league in North America lost an entire season to a labor dispute and the first time the Stanley Cup wasn't awarded since 1919 -- when a then-2-year-old NHL had to cancel the finals because of a flu outbreak. Of course the same owners who signed off on this embarrassment spent the next several years raising salaries and circumventing the cap they fought to establish -- such as with "back-diving" contracts that Bettman retroactively punished in the 2013 collective bargaining agreement.

GOOD: Protecting the integrity of the game

While some might scoff at this -- hey, we miss the division names, too -- Bettman has steadfastly protected several facets of the NHL despite heavy external pressure to change them. The playoffs have stayed at 16 teams; and despite marathon overtime sessions, Bettman has rejected the idea of a postseason shootout. Fox Sports wanted the NHL to move from three periods to two halves, and Bettman never entertained it. (We'll categorize the glow puck as a noble failure, in hindsight.)

And then there were the clarion calls to end fighting. Bettman has always said fighting was part of the game, which it was -- and as the game changed, fighting organically started to disappear. "He never said you were not allowed to fight anymore. But what he did was he curtailed the rules, then eventually and slowly eliminated fighting from the sport of hockey," Wayne Gretzky told the Toronto Star.

BAD: His stance on CTE

Bettman's legacy on the NHL's concussion crisis will likely be cemented when the massive lawsuits facing the league are either tried or settled. What is settled is that Bettman continues to deny a link exists between chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and concussions, either scientifically or "causally." When the NFL is willing to admit a link between football and CTE but Gary Bettman refuses to do so in his sport, that's a terrible look for hockey. There might be legal reasons for him to do so, but this denial of accepted science is Neanderthalic.

GOOD: Franchise valuations

One of Bettman's primary tasks is making his owners' teams more valuable. To that end, it's undeniable that he has accomplished the task. NHL team values are up 15 percent this year vs. 2016, to an average of $594 million. Just 15 years ago, in 2003, the average NHL team was valued at $150 million. The Toronto Maple Leafs became the NHL's first billion-dollar team in 2012; the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens soon joined them, with Forbes valuing the Rangers at $1.5 billion.

In 1993, it cost an expansion franchise $50 million to join the NHL. In 2003, that fee had risen to $80 million. When Seattle gets its expected NHL expansion franchise, the fee will be a reported $650 million.

While Bettman was building up the NHL, the league's cities were building arenas for the NHL. According to Sportsnet, 25 of the NHL's 31 teams have moved into new arenas during Bettman's tenure -- 26 if you count the Vegas Golden Knights -- and the New York Islanders might have moved into two new buildings by the time Bettman retires. The NHL has been an active participant in getting some of these deals done, coyly playing along with potential relocation threats (like in Pittsburgh) while crying poverty along with owners who so desperately need taxpayers to fund their luxury boxes.

It's often said that Bettman serves at the pleasure of the NHL owners. And he's served them well to this end.

BAD: Botching the 1994 lockout

While the NHL was initially lauded for gaining a series of concessions from the players, history shows the NHL Players' Association as the victor in this brutal, contentious lockout that ended on Jan. 11, 1995. (How contentious? Chris Chelios suggested that a crazed fan or player might seek to get Bettman "out of the way." Bettman responded by hiring a bodyguard for himself and his family.) Especially when one considers how then-NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow and the players managed to avoid the implementation of a salary cap, whose potential existence was a prime reason Bettman was hired from the NBA.

Imagine if Bettman had prevailed then? Perhaps the 2004-05 season would have survived.

GOOD: Hiring John Collins

Collins was a senior vice president of marketing and sales for the NFL before moving over to the NHL in November 2006 and eventually becoming its chief operating officer. During his nine years with the league, he led negotiations on the NHL's billion-dollar TV rights deals in the U.S. and Canada; brokered the NHL's MLB Advanced Media streaming deal; brought on a slew of new sponsors; laid the groundwork for the World Cup of Hockey; and, most important, helped create the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series.

Also under Collins: the digital media push. The NHL was surprisingly blasé about fans using game footage on YouTube and in creating GIFs at a time when other sports leagues (and networks) were swinging a hammer at folks for the same things. The NHL also embraced digital media early -- even before Collins arrived -- with teams granting credentials for bloggers and the league itself doing so for large events like the NHL draft. Bettman knew that the real estate for NHL coverage in traditional media was declining, so the league helped a cottage industry of alternative media thrive by being relatively hands-off. Collins helped foster this.

He was, by far, one of Bettman's best signings.

BAD: Failures on inclusiveness

No amount of Pride Tape on stick blades changes the fact that Bettman's NHL has been inconsistent on social issues, especially not when the commissioner himself equates chants of "Katy Perry!" at Corey Perry to calling a goalie "a sieve" and the NHL fails to suspended Ryan Getzlaf for a homophobic slur because it's a playoff game. Meanwhile, the league has struggled with mixed messages for female fans -- ice girls remain a thing -- and with changing the demographics of who watches and plays the game. They've also struggled with representation, especially in the executive ranks. The hiring of Kim Davis as executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs is at least an encouraging sign that the league wants less "Declaration of Principles" posturing and more action.

GOOD: Trusting in Brendan Shanahan

Few people have played as integral a role in shaping the current NHL than Shanahan. The "Shanahan Summit" during the 2004-05 lockout helped foster the rules changes that juiced offense. He's also credited with creating the NHL All-Star Game fantasy draft concept, which the NBA has since stolen. Most of all, he was Bettman's pick to head the first incarnation of the NHL Department of Player Safety, establishing a philosophy of education and targeted enforcement that yielded dramatic results.

BAD: The skate-in-the-crease review

More than a dozen years before the coach's challenge was criticized for its glitches, the NHL had another video-review headache on its hands. In 1997, the league began reviewing goals in which a player's skate was in the crease before the puck entered the net. After confusion reigned when the Dallas Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup over the Buffalo Sabres on a goal scored with Brett Hull's skate in the crease, the NHL eliminated video review of crease violations less than two days later. Bettman called this one of his biggest mistakes as commissioner.

GOOD: Finding, and guiding, loyal owners

Over the past 25 years, Bettman has overseen a massive churn on NHL ownership. The old boys network gave way to Bettman-selected new boys, who are in lockstep with him on his initiatives. The good news is that many of these owners have also turned out to be boons for their respective franchises, especially in nontraditional markets. The best of the best: Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, whom Bettman encouraged to hire GM Steve Yzerman; and Bill Foley, owner of the Vegas Golden Knights, whose expansion process Bettman carefully cultivated.

BAD: The criminal owners

Hey, they can't all not be con men.

In 1997, Bettman thought that John Spano was going to be the savior of the New York Islanders, buying the team for $165 million ... until it turned out that Spano was worth only $5 million. The NHL approved him as an owner in February; by July, Bettman was mediating a settlement as Spano relinquished control of the Islanders to their previous owner. In January 1998, Spano pleaded guilty to bank fraud and was eventually sentenced to 71 months in jail.

The NHL also approved John Rigas as the owner of the Sabres in 1997, before having to take over the team in 2002 when he was arrested for fraud. It approved William "Boots" Del Biaggio III as a minority owner of the Nashville Predators in 2007; two years later, Del Biaggio was sentenced to eight years in prison and stripped of his ownership for fraudulently obtaining loans in that purchase. There are other examples of misbehaving NHL owners, too.

GOOD: Supporting the NHL's southern strategy

One of the great misconceptions of Bettman's tenure is that he was the catalyst for the NHL's "Sun Belt Strategy," when in fact expansion to California, Florida and the Stars' move to Dallas all predated him. What Bettman did for these teams, and others like the Nashville Predators, was stand by them through whatever challenges they had in attendance and ownership to help foster their success, citing the necessity for the NHL to have a wide "footprint" in the U.S. for television purposes.

As a result, the NHL has made billion-dollar TV deals, teams like Tampa and Nashville are blockbuster successes, and generations of new American hockey players are emerging from these markets, inspired by watching the local NHL teams -- Auston Matthews, Seth Jones and Shayne Gostisbehere among them.

BAD: The Coyotes debacle

While Bettman's determination to make struggling markets work was laudable, the Coyotes' situation has veered into disaster territory. It was valorous at first, with the NHL fighting then-owner Jerry Moyes in 2009 to prevent him from using bankruptcy courts to circumvent the league's ownership approval process and sell the team to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie for the purposes of relocating it to Hamilton, Ontario. But after seven ownership bids with varying degrees of success, the Coyotes are a losing team that's also losing money and doesn't have any solid prospects for a new arena after Glendale, Arizona, ended its lease agreement.

GOOD: Bailing out Canadian franchises

Bettman is often portrayed as an adversary of Canadian markets, which might have been unavoidable as established teams migrated south and expansion teams were handed to warm-weather cities. But Bettman has never hesitated to step up for Canadian teams, as was evident when the nonpartisan NHL waded into Calgary's 2017 mayoral election in an effort to secure the Flames a new arena.

But the greatest example of this was in the late 1990s, when several Canadian teams -- the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators chief among them -- were in dire financial straits and Bettman's NHL created revenue sharing to stabilize them. "There was a point in the early 1990s when some said there was only going to be one team left in Canada," Bettman told MacLean's in 2009. "We never believed that, and everything we did with the Canadian Assistance Program, and with the new collective bargaining agreement, was to ensure that small-market teams -- particularly small-market Canadian teams -- not only could survive but could be fully competitive."

Oh, and not for nothing, but Winnipeg got its team back after the NHL's experiment in Atlanta failed. Quebec City, on the other hand ...

BAD: The trap gobbles up a decade

It's incredible to think back to how bungled the marketing was for the NHL during the first 15 years of Bettman's tenure. His league marketed offense during the "dead puck era" as if it was a guy selling snowblowers in Miami Beach. But Bettman assured everyone that asked that the product was thriving.

As Stu Hackel wrote in Sports Illustrated: "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."

GOOD: His beatdown of MSG

Bettman has rarely needed to strong-arm his clubs, but when the situation has arisen, he hasn't hesitated to keep them in line. There was no better example than in 1997, when the New York Rangers attempted to set up their own internet store and online broadcasting rights separate from NHL.com. Bettman fined the team $100,000 every day that its site wasn't in line with the league's other digital properties. That lasted 48 hours.

Then the Dolan family filed an antitrust suit against the NHL, partially as a vote of no confidence against Bettman. The NHL countersued, and a New York District Court judge gave Bettman the victory. But he wasn't done. In June 2008, he filed papers in court to strip the Dolan family of control of the Rangers for essentially suing the league's other 29 teams. James Dolan settled out of court and had to sign a letter that acknowledged the Rangers were wrong in their pursuit of separate digital rights.

It was like having to write "I lost to Gary Bettman" 100 times on a chalkboard.

BAD: The Guardian project

Of all the marketing missteps under Bettman, this might have been the most embarrassing. In 2011, the NHL partnered with comics legend Stan Lee and Guardian Media Entertainment to create 30 superheroes based on the league's teams and then create a convoluted backstory that would lend itself to a multiplatform project.

Problem 1: The character designs were complete rip-offs of existing superheroes. (Perhaps they were hoping no Penguins fans were familiar with Cyclops from the X-Men.) Problem 2: The NHL debuted the Guardians with a cringe-worthy CGI disaster at the All-Star Game. Problem 3: The project was such a bust that one tech firm lost millions on it and another had to pay a $500,000 settlement after NBC bailed on the thing.

GOOD: The Canadian TV deal

One could argue that Rogers benefited from its 12-year, $5.2 billion (Canadian) deal with the NHL in 2014. No one can question that the NHL made out with a gigantic financial windfall at a time when rights fees were declining, the benefit of a bidding war between Canada's broadcasting titans that was noisier than Don Cherry's suits.

BAD: The American TV deal

In 2011, NBC and the NHL signed 10-year deal worth nearly $2 billion for the exclusive TV rights in the U.S. At the time, it was seen as an impressive haul considering the declining value of rights fees. Today it's hard to find many of the league's power brokers who are pleased with having cast their lot monolithically with one network while the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball are on multiple platforms -- to say nothing of the digital-rights boom that has taken place since that contract. (NBC, meanwhile, was rewarded for its loyalty by having the NHL pull its players from the 2018 Olympics.)

GOOD: International reach and the Olympics

The NHL's multinationalism is its greatest asset: It has the world's greatest hockey players, among them a collection of non-North Americans who repel xenophobic sports fans and make hockey feel even more alien to mainstream Americans than it already does.

Bettman's NHL capitalized on the diverse background of its players by aggressively courting international markets. The league has played games in Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, England, Northern Ireland, Latvia, Slovakia, Japan and most recently China. It has television deals that make games available in hockey-centric international markets and several language-specific versions of NHL.com. International expansion teams? Well, maybe in the next 25 years of Bettman.

Yes, the NHL and the International Olympic Committee couldn't put on their big-boy pants and find a way to get the league's players involved in the 2018 Winter Games. But Bettman was a driving force behind the NHL getting into the Olympics business in the first place, tracking back to his early years as commissioner, when he wanted an NBA "Dream Team" for the NHL.

It took a few years, but Bettman finally got his owners on the same page regarding an interruption to their season for the Olympics. For five Winter Games, the NHL players helped put on some of the best hockey tournaments ever witnessed, with the apex being the Canadian win in Vancouver on Sidney Crosby's golden goal. Olympic participation is an indelible part of Bettman's legacy -- both the glory of it, and the fact that the league's inability to transform its impact into additional revenue or popularity led to the NHL pulling out of South Korea.

BAD: Contentious relationship with players

The partnership between the players and the NHL leadership usually lands somewhere between toxic and tense, depending on the state of labor negotiations. But the NHL pivoting the Olympics issue to a collective bargaining one has further strained it, especially at a time when players are being asked to do more to market the sport globally. The distrust is palpable: At a time when the NBA and its players worked together for labor peace, the athletes are structuring their contracts with bonus money in anticipation of (another) lockout. It's frosty.

And finally ...

BAD: Niche sports status

Twenty-five years ago, the NHL had a loyal collection of fans in the U.S. but rarely broke through to the mainstream.

Today ... the NHL has a loyal collection of fans in the U.S. but rarely breaks through to the mainstream.

Some have felt this status is beneficial to hockey. Most of us, however, would probably prefer a world in which we don't go into every conversation with a new acquaintance assuming they'll have no idea what we're talking about if we mention hockey because it still lingers outside the mainstream of popular culture. The punchlines are different now, but the jokes remain.

When he was hired, Gary Bettman looked at the NHL and said, "We've got a great product that is underappreciated."

A lot has changed for Gary Bettman's NHL in 25 years. And some things haven't.

(Information compiled from media and Jonathon Gatehouse's terrific Bettman book "The Instigator.")