The NHL has evolved tremendously over the past 26 years — from a league of mainly Canadian athletes and meager television revenues, to a multi-national, multi-billion dollar league. At its helm since February 1, 1993 is Gary Bettman, a New York City raised attorney. Bettman’s mandate centered on growing the game, particularly in non-traditional regions of the U.S.
During Bettman’s tenure, the NHL has expanded by five teams; Florida, Nashville, Minnesota, Columbus, and Las Vegas, with a fifth coming to Seattle in 2021. Additionally, the original Winnipeg Jets and the Hartford Whalers moved to Phoenix and Carolina, respectively. These expansions, along with the recent success of teams such as Tampa Bay and Los Angeles, have increased viewership and participation in the U.S.
However, Bettman comes with his detractors. He has presided over three labor stoppages, with the 2004-05 dispute canceling the entire season. Many Canadian fans dislike him due to a perceived “anti-Canadian” bias. Regardless of one’s stance, Bettman has revolutionized the league, and grown its international reach.
Bettman is the first and only commissioner of the NHL, as the title was changed from president to commissioner following his appointment. When Bettman assumed the role, total league revenues were a mere $400 million, a figure now exceeding $4 billion. Lucrative television contracts with NBC, high profile events such as the Winter Classic, and until 2018, NHL players competing in the Olympics, have all contributed to the rising stature of hockey in the U.S.
Both the NHL’s players and fan base are increasingly diversifying. During Bettman’s first season in 1993, 66.6% of the league’s players were Canadian. At the start of this season, the NHL is only 43.8% Canadian, with U.S.-born players now comprising 28.1% of the league’s players. Under Bettman’s tenure, the NHL has played preseason games in not only hockey-mad Sweden and Finland, but also China. The game’s global outreach and audience would have been inconceivable just a few decades ago.
Concurrent with a rise in U.S.-born NHL players, is a surge in hockey’s popularity among American youth. As of the 2015-16 season, the three fastest growing states in terms of percentage of increase in registered players are North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida. Coincidentally, these states have all gained an NHL franchise under Bettman’s watch. American superstars, such as Auston Matthews — who was born in California and raised in Arizona — have emerged from non-traditional states.
Bettman’s legacy will forever be remembered for three labor stoppages or “lockouts.” Most critically, the 2004-05 lockout resulted in the imposition of a salary cap, drawing praise from league owners, and ire from most players. Some fans believe that the salary cap increases parity, as it prevents wealthy teams from spending unlimited sums on superstars. Case in point: the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings. Nine current hall of fame players were on the roster, including legends Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Sergei Fedorov. It would be simply impossible to construct that caliber of a team with today’s salary cap of $79.5 million. Differing perspectives on the cap aside, hockey fans (myself included) were extremely unhappy with the loss of an entire season.
Canada has two original six franchises, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, with storied pasts and rabid fan bases. However, there are also less-supported teams who have struggled in recent years. The Ottawa Senators are a prime example. Aside from a surprise appearance in the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, they have been in NHL purgatory for the better part of a decade. The Senators rank 27 out of 31 teams in attendance this season, averaging just over 14,000 fans per game. Vancouver and Edmonton have had similar problems. Many Canadians accuse Bettman of ignoring the state of the league in their country. They feel that expanding the NHL in non-traditional parts of the U.S. has come at their expense, with cities such as Hamilton, Ontario, and Quebec City being passed over in favor of Las Vegas.
Whether one vilifies or deifies Gary Bettman, it is hard to deny his momentous impact on the game. In November of 2018, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the “builders” category. Builder is certainly an apt description. Under his stewardship, the NHL has grown from a provincial, low-revenue league, to a multi-billion dollar enterprise with a strong following throughout North America, Northern Europe, and a burgeoning audience in Asia. Bettman is by far the longest-tenured commissioner among the his peers who oversee the other major North American leagues, and at 66 shows no signs of slowing down. When he does leave his post, his legacy will live on as the man who brought the NHL into the 21st century. ■
Joe Banish is a die-hard Red Wings fan who lives in the pro hockey vacuum of the Pacific Northwest. He also likes beating goalies high glove side, playing basketball, and cheering on his alma mater, Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @BanishJoe.