Ask new NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman his priorities for the early months of his five-year contract, which began Feb. 1, and he ticks them off like a professor detailing a curriculum. He must 1) evaluate the talent in the league offices; 2) focus on the marketing and promotion of the game; 3) develop a relationship with a major television network; 4) build communications with the owners; 5) hire a "hockey man" to oversee fines and suspensions; and, his top priority, 6) hammer out a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players before the current one expires on Sept. 15.
The 40-year-old Bettman is going to be a busy man. A native New Yorker, smart in every sense of the word, Bettman comes to the NHL having studied at "the feet of the master," as he describes his work with NBA commissioner David Stern. Bettman got his undergraduate degree at Cornell ('74) and his law degree at NYU (77) before joining Stern's former law firm, Proskauer Rose Goetz and Mendelsohn. In 1981 Stern took Bettman to the NBA, where he quickly advanced to the position of general counsel, the league's third-in-command, gaining recognition by helping Stern design and implement the salary cap under which pro basketball has thrived.
Bettman rejects the notion that a salary cap—which has been opposed by Bob Goodenow, the head of the NHL Players' Association—will be the cornerstone of hockey's new labor agreement. "The last thing I want the union to think is, Well, they hired Bettman, it means they've got to have a salary cap," he says. "I view myself as somebody who's very knowledgeable in labor relations in professional sports. That could give rise to a salary cap, NBA-style, or it could give rise to a completely new system."
More pragmatist than idealist, Bettman sees himself as a consensus builder. "I don't view the commissioner's job as throwing lightning bolts and saying, That's it!" Among his long-term goals: to widen the fan base so that hockey becomes a national sport in the U.S., and to improve the look of the game on TV so that the NHL might land a network contract.
Bettman is also open to new ideas. He is not averse to a shoot-out to decide a tie game. He wants to study the current divisional playoff format to see whether the postseason might be improved if, as in the NBA, the matchups are determined by conference standings—one plays eight, two plays seven, etc. Asked where he stands on fighting, which has so badly damaged the league's image, Bettman responds, politically, "Whether or not the pro game needs fighting is an issue I'm not prepared to address yet."
Rather than use the commissioner's office as a bully pulpit, look for him to do his best work behind the scenes, twisting arms to bring about change in a sport that still has one foot somewhere in the '70s, the other one in the air. "The NBA has been run well, so my stock is high," he says. "I hope this perception is underscored by the reality."