HOW GARY BETTMAN REMADE THE LEAGUE AND CHANGED THE GAME FOREVER
Gary Bettman’s two-decade reign has brought fans lockouts, soaring ticket prices, on-ice tinkering, and the heartbreaking departures of Canadian teams for American markets, and seen the centre of NHL power shift to Manhattan. Many hardcore hockey followers are convinced the commissioner is out to ruin the game this country loves.
Still, when Bettman took over in 1992, the gross revenue of the National Hockey League was US$400 million. This season, the figure will be closer to $3.3 billion—an eightfold increase. If that were the only criterion by which to judge Bettman’s tenure, he’d be a business success story. But on his watch, professional hockey has expanded beyond its traditional strongholds and shown it can prosper in unlikely places—even on American networks. And the best players in the world now all ply their trade in the league that Gary built.
By taming the NHL’s famously fractious owners, all but busting its players’ union, and by enforcing lawyerly discipline on everything from trash talk to Jim Balsillie’s efforts to crash the party, Bettman has become a figure of almost unrivalled power in the business of sport. His influence shapes leagues in other countries, dictates the schedule of the Olympic Winter Games, and spills onto the ice itself with innovations such as the shootout and a second referee, and with crackdowns on obstruction and headshots.
In The Instigator, Jonathon Gatehouse details the unlikely ascension of a lonely New York City kid from a single-parent family who never played hockey and can barely skate to the sport’s biggest job. It examines his motivations, peels back his often aloof demeanour, and explains how a true outsider manages to lead, confound, and keep order in the game Canadians love.
The full beer cup arcs from the not-so-cheap seats of Vancouver’s Rogers Arena toward the home end of the ice, golden contrail spreading out behind. It lands and splatters, short and a little to the left of the intended target, but close enough that he has to notice. Still, Gary Bettman doesn’t flinch. Wireless microphone raised to his lips, tight smile firmly in place, free hand tucked casually in his suit pants pocket, the commissioner of the National Hockey League carries on with the speech that no one in the rink can hear over the cacophony of booing and catcalls. Boston’s Tim Thomas skates forward to accept the Conn Smythe Trophy as the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs’ most valuable player as the beers—and now plastic water bottles—continue to fly. There’s a polite burst of applause, as the burly goalie grins and poses for photographers. Then, just to make sure things haven’t been misconstrued, the crowd of 18,860 takes up the chant, “Bettman sucks! Bettman sucks!”
The sequence is much the same when a pair of white-gloved custodians from the Hockey Hall of Fame carry the Cup onto the ice: clapping for the chalice, some high-decibel abuse for the man giving it away. And the odd missile from the stands. Zdeno Chara, Sticks the Bruins’ towering and glowering captain, doesn’t even realize the presentation is underway until Bettman beckons him up to the red carpet. There’s a lopsided exchange, in which the 5-foot-6 commissioner looks like the mayor of Munchkinland next to the 6-foot-9-plus-skates Slovak defenceman. Seconds later, the Bruins are celebrating in a pulsating mob at centre ice, while the whipping boy ducks back down the tunnel, surrounded by NHL security.
Afterwards, the commissioner will pretend it was no big deal, chalking up the hostile reception to the Game 7 disappointment of Canucks fans, which was compounded by...
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Jonathon Gatehouse is a senior correspondent for Maclean’s magazine and was formerly a reporter for the National Post and Montreal’s Gazette. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children, plays hockey three times a week, and has a dog named Wendel.