Gary Bettman began his tenure as NHL commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993. Three lockouts from 1994 to 2013 and public outcry over the NHL’s simultaneous hard yet pled-ignorant stand on concussions have marred Bettman’s tenure which has also brought the NHL a hard-salary cap and exponentially rising revenues. It has been a successful and turbulent ride.
And now in his 26th year, Bettman is embarking on a technological embrace for players, fans and teams. The faces of the game have changed as the game has changed, but the person at the head of the table doesn’t sound like he’ll be changing.
The question was posed to Bettman, 66, at his All-Star Game press conference.
“We were doing so nicely, and now my back hurts, I’m aching…” Bettman joked. “I haven’t given it any thought.”
Bettman has arguably been one of the great commissioners of the NHL. The league has expanded, pushed forward with new and innovative television concepts and lucrative TV deals. From a business perspective, the league managed to thread the needle with legal arguments which avoided massive CTE-brain injury settlements. That is a feat not even the NFL managed.
However, from a human perspective, the NHL’s dealing with concussions has often seemed callous and worse, dismissive. And such is the checkered but ever more profitable tenure of Bettman.
“Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t operate on time frames (of succession) like that. I love what I do,” the commissioner said.
Under Bettman’s leadership, the NHL underwent the sunbelt expansion and relocation which has provided mixed results. The league awarded expansion teams to Nashville, Atlanta, and not-so-sunbelt Columbus and Minnesota. The NHL also saw relocation to Arizona (Phoenix), Dallas and Carolina (Raleigh). Through the chaos, Atlanta failed and moved to Winnipeg which had lost a franchise to Arizona. Arizona has been failing and financially supplemented by the league. Carolina perennially faces difficult times and does not spend to the salary cap limit, and there were significant questions about Nashville and Columbus before recent success provided some financial stability to those franchises.
And the NHL will reach 32 teams with the 2017 Vegas expansion and the future Seattle expansion.
Despite player grumbling about escrow withholdings, the NHL salary cap appears to be on an explosive trajectory to well over $80 million, as well.
With the worst of the concussion lawsuit behind the NHL, a growing game with more cities and fans, an explosion of youth and fresh marketing faces like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, more offense per game than the NHL has seen in over 10 years, and possible labor peace, Bettman’s All-Star Game address at times seemed like a victory lap.
Indeed, the jeered and booed commissioner has squashed his competition. Not even NHLPA head Donald Fehr who was hired by the players to fight back against serious concessions in the last two lockouts can derail the commissioner’s momentum. Gone were the pointed questions about life and death, gone were questions dripping with incredulity. Not that Bettman didn’t earn a heaping spoonful of incredulous questions throughout his career but those were in short supply, Friday.
He may have survived in the job long enough to become venerable. It’s hard to think of an issue on which he has lost.
“You’re stuck with me,” Bettman laughed as he also stressed he foresees labor peace next season, which would mark the first time in his tenure the negotiations did not include a lockout. He may not be able to hoist his arms above his head and run around the stage in a victory dance, but the tone and tenor of the press conference did that for him.
He’s won. And we’re stuck with him.