Gary Bruce Bettman (born June 2, 1952) is the commissioner of the National Hockey League (NHL), a post he has held since February 1, 1993. Previously, Bettman was a senior vice-president and general counsel to the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Under Bettman, the NHL has seen rapid growth of league revenues, from $400 million when he was hired to over $2.2 billion in 2006–07. Bettman oversaw the expansion the NHL's footprint across the United States, with six new teams added during his tenure, bringing the NHL to 30. Bettman has also been at the middle of much controversy. Bettman has often been criticized for attempting to "Americanize" the game, and has been a central figure of two labor stoppages, including the 2004–05 NHL lockout that saw the entire season canceled.
On February 1, 1993, Bettman's tenure as the first commissioner of the National Hockey League began, replacing Gil Stein, who served as the NHL's final president. The owners hired Bettman with the mandate of selling the game in the U.S. market, end labor unrest, complete expansion plans, and modernize the views of the "old-guard" within the ownership ranks.
Expansion and relocation
When Bettman started as commissioner, the league had already expanded by three teams to 24 since 1991, and two more were set to be announced by the expansion committee: the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who would begin play in 1993–94. Similar to the previous expansion cycles, the focus was on placing teams in the southern United States. The Nashville Predators (1998), Atlanta Thrashers (1999), Minnesota Wild (2000) and Columbus Blue Jackets (2000) completed the NHL's expansion period, bringing the league to 30 teams. In addition, four franchises relocated during Bettman's tenure: The Minnesota North Stars to Dallas (1993), the Quebec Nordiques to Denver (1995), the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix (1996) and the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina (1997).
Led by Bettman, the league focused expansion and relocation efforts on the Southern United States, working to expand the league's footprint across the country. As a result, there has been significant growth in the sport of hockey at the grassroots level with children in the U.S. South playing the game in increasing numbers. The move towards Southern markets has been heavily criticized as well, however, with fans in Canada and the Northern United States lamenting the move away from "traditional hockey markets.
Bettman has also been accused of having an "anti-Canadian" agenda, with critics citing the relocation of the franchises in Quebec City and Winnipeg and his apparent refusal to help stop it, along with the aborted sale of the Nashville Predators in 2007 to interests that would have moved the team to Hamilton, Ontario. Jim Balsillie accused Bettman of forcing the Predators to end negotiations with him to purchase the team. Bettman was satirized in this vein as the character "Harry Buttman" in the 2006 Canadian movie Bon Cop, Bad Cop. However, Bettman also championed the Canadian assistance plan, a revenue sharing agreement that saw American teams give money to help support the four small-market Canadian teams – Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Vancouver – throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Although Bettman was tasked with putting an end to the NHL's labor problems, the league has none-the-less locked out its players twice during Bettman's tenure. The 1994–95 lockout lasted 104 days, causing the season to be shortened from 84- to 48-games. A key issue during the lockout was the desire to aid small market teams. Led by Bettman, the owners insisted on a salary cap, changes to free agency and arbitration in the hopes of limiting escalating salaries, the union instead proposed a luxury tax system. The negotiations were at times bitter, with Chris Chelios famously issuing a veiled threat against Bettman, suggesting that Bettman should be "worried about [his] family and [his] well-being", because "Some crazed fans, or even a player [...] might take matters into their own hands and figure they get Bettman out of the way."
Last-ditch negotiations saved the season in January 1995. And while the owners failed to achieve a full salary cap, the union agreed to a cap on rookie contracts; changes to arbitration and restrictive rules for free agency that would not grant a player unrestricted free agency until he turned 31. The deal was initially hailed as a win for the owners.
By the end of the deal in 2004, the owners were claiming that player salaries had grown far faster than revenues, and that the league as a whole lost over US$300 million in 2002–03.
As a result, on September 15, 2004, Bettman announced that the owners again locked the players out prior to the start of the 2004–05 season. Three months later, Bettman announced the cancellation of the entire season with the words "It is my sad duty to announce that because a solution has not yet been attained, it is no longer practical to conduct even an abbreviated season. Accordingly, I have no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play." The NHL became the first North American league to cancel an entire season because of a labor stoppage.
As in 1994, the owners' position was predicated around the need for a salary cap. In an effort to ensure solidarity amongst the owners, the league's governors voted to give Bettman the right to unilaterally veto any union offer as long as he had the backing of just eight owners. The players initially favored luxury tax system, and a 5% rollback on player salaries — later increased to 24%. As the threat of a canceled season loomed, the players agreed to accept a salary cap, but the two sides could not come to terms on numbers before the deadline expired.
Following the cancellation of the season, negotiations progressed quickly, as a revolt within the union led to National Hockey League Players Association president Trevor Linden and senior director Ted Saskin taking negotiations over from executive director Bob Goodenow. Goodenow would resign from the NHLPA in July 2005. By early July, the two sides had agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement. The deal featured a hard salary cap, linked to a fixed percentage of league revenues, a 24% rollback on salaries, and free agency beginning after seven years of service. After being panned as one of the worst managers in business in 2004 for canceling the season, Bettman was lauded as one of the best in 2005 for his role in bringing "cost certainty" to the NHL.
Bettman quickly accomplished one of his stated goals, signing a five-year, $155 million deal with the Fox Broadcasting Company to broadcast NHL games nationally beginning in the 1994–95 season. The deal was significant, as a network television contract in the United States was long thought unattainable during the presidency of John Ziegler. The FOX deal is perhaps best remembered for the FoxTrax puck, which while generally popular according to Fox Sports, generated a great deal of controversy from longtime fans of the game.
Canadians were also upset as the league gave preference to FOX ahead of CBC for scheduling of playoff games, as Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette wrote that the schedule was "just another example of how the N.H.L. snubs its nose at the country that invented hockey and its fans." The controversy repeated itself in 2007, as CBC was once again given second billing to Versus' coverage of the playoffs.
Despite falling ratings, Bettman negotiated a five year, $600 million deal with ABC and ESPN in 1998. It was the largest television contract the NHL ever signed. The $120 million per year that ABC and ESPN paid for rights dwarfed the $5.5 million that the NHL received from American national broadcasts in 1991–92.
The NHL's television fortunes have faded since the ABC deal, however. In 2004, the league could only manage a revenue sharing deal with NBC, with no money paid up front by the network. Also, coming out of the lockout, ESPN declined its $60 million option for the NHL's cable rights in 2005–06. While wishing to retain the NHL, it stated the cost was overvalued. However, Bettman was able to negotiate a deal with Comcast to air the NHL on the Outdoor Life Network channel, now called Versus. The three year deal was worth $207.5 million. Bettman has been heavily criticized for the move to Versus, as detractors have argued that the league has lost a great deal of exposure since moving to the much smaller network.
- Gary Bettman (NHL Commissioner 1993-present)
|National Hockey League Commissioner
(titled NHL President prior to 1993)
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