A quick look around Gary Bettman’s 33rd-floor office in midtown Manhattan tells something about the breadth of problems that the NHL’s firstever commissioner has inherited. There is nothing wrong with the view on a bright spring day. The spacious corner suite has windows facing east to where the morning sun glistens on the East River, and south along Fifth Avenue towards downtown.
But the office’s furnishings hardly fill the room and the walls are bare, except for picture hooks where art once hung. The suite’s previous occupant, ousted former NHL president John Ziegler, left last fall with a multimillion-dollar severance, a $250,000-per-year pension—and all the office furniture and art. Bettman had to rent the basics when he took the job on Feb. 1. “I don’t want to pass judgment on what happened before I came here,” Bettman told Maclean’s. “But I can set my own agenda and instil the values that I have, and then run the sport going forward on that basis.”
To a league that has recently suffered through labor strife, TV contract woes and a slew of internal scandals, Bettman’s promise is welcome news. Since he started, the former senior vice-president of the National Basketball Association has travelled to nearly every NHL arena, gabbed on talk shows and met with fans. He has steered the league’s 26 team owners through a potentially acrimonious realignment of divisions. He is working to negotiate new collective agreements with the players and game officials. And he has hired television, marketing and publicity specialists to boost the league’s U.S. exposure. So far, the energetic lawyer who spent 12 years helping NBA commissioner David Stern turn basketball into North America’s hottest sports property seems to be making the right moves in the NHL. “I think that he was very persuasive during the realignment meetings, and he worked very quickly,” said Montreal Canadiens president Ronald Corey. “It’s a good sign for the league.”
Bettman, 40, grew up in the suburbs of
New York City, but says that he became a hockey fan while at Cornell University, the upstate school where he studied industrial and labor relations. Bettman, who now lives in New City, N.Y., with his wife, Michelle, and three children, later studied law at New York University, and was working for a large Manhattan law firm when the NBA opportunity came along. “When I joined the NBA in 1981,” he said, “you could have had a good debate as to whether hockey or basketball was the No. 3 sport in North America. But the NBA built an organization that dealt with its problems, and marketed and promoted its sport.”
To do the same, Bettman insists, the NHL must move forward. He also wants to resolve some lingering problems, such as the dispute with retired players over their pensions, and has initiated a review of the controversial election two weeks ago of Gilbert Stein to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Stein, the former NHL general counsel who was appointed interim president last fall, had just finished installing five new Hall board members, who then voted
on new inductees. Stein’s term as president ends in June.
The new commissioner has been busy trying to make sense of the league’s changing map. In two moves that preceded Bettman’s arrival, team owners allowed Minnesota’s Norman Green to relocate the North Stars to Dallas, and then announced that two new teams, Miami and Anaheim, Calif., would join the NHL next season. The expansion agreement stipulated that Anaheim’s owner, Walt Disney Co., would pay half of its $50-million entry fee as a territorial indemnity to Los Angeles Kings’ owner Bruce McNall, the league’s chairman. That was disturbing news to advocates for Hamilton, Ont. Two years earlier, league officials had told them that, if Hamilton were to win an expansion franchise, the city would have to pay indemnities to ^ both Toronto and Buffalo on top of g the $50-million fee. i Bettman says that he would have ! exercised greater control over both I decisions. Green may still have § been given permission to move, he “ says, but only under strict guidelines. “I’d like to know, going in, before the moving vans are unloaded, that there are 10,000 season tickets, that there is a good media contract, that there is a great lease,” Bettman said. Without specifically referring to the payment to McNall, Bettman criticized how the expansion was handled. “We didn’t have signed contracts, we hadn’t dealt with realignment—all the things that should have been done in advance, hadn’t been done. Even the rules concerning the expansion draft had yet to be confirmed. That’s not how you expand.” Undeterred, Bettman has launched himself enthusiastically into building on hockey’s strengths—regional popularity, solid attendance and a fast, exciting sport. “I had a great job,” he said of the NBA. But the NHL posed a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. “I felt that this was a sport with tremendous growth potential, and I thought that it was a good opportunity for me to use what I had learned.” If he learned well, Bettman may yet be able to stickhandle the league through its troubles and into the clear.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.