Aside from the lax NHL background check that allowed fraud artist John Spano to temporarily take control of the Islanders in 1996--97, and Bettman's intransigence on the league's so-called Sun Belt strategy, the bare-bones case for Bettman as the sorriest commissioner in the history of sports is this: Lockout I in 1994, which cancelled 468 games; Lockout II, which resulted in the lost season of 2004--05, and which saw ownership achieve a 24% salary rollback, institute a salary cap and do everything to the NHLPA except steal its tires and put it up on blocks; and Lockout III, which saw the players' share of hockey-related revenue go from 57% to 50%. The Bettman years, like world wars, are marked by Roman numerals.
This season the NHL lost 510 games even though management and player sources, while vehemently blaming the other side, agree that an earlier settlement was possible given that the ultimate 50-50 split of revenue always seemed like a foregone conclusion. This labor impasse was informed almost as much by the union's need to restore self-respect under executive director Donald Fehr—the fifth NHLPA director in the last eight years—as it was by ownership's desire to spackle holes in the flawed '05 agreement. But these were lockouts, not strikes, even if NHL executives always refer to them as "work stoppages." Bettman owns them.
The lockouts are jagged shards, characterizing a tenure in which Bettman has inarguably benefited ownership long term but roiled the game short term. Nevertheless, the game already seems to be roaring back. (According to announced attendance, arenas are filled to 97.3% of capacity, and revenues are projected to be $2.4 billion for the shortened season.) Bettman took over a $400 million enterprise and has grown it eightfold, into a $3.3 billion league. But David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC's Marshall School of Business, says, "Where it gets tricky is how much greater growth there would have been with labor stability. Maybe it could have been a $4 billion or even a $5 billion business."
Still, the balance sheet flatters a commissioner who landed hockey's great white whale—an American network-TV contract. In 1994, Bettman returned the NHL to over-the-air TV in the U.S. for the first time since 1975 with a $155 million deal with Fox, and, in 2011, he upgraded with a 10-year, $2 billion deal from NBC. The NHL also expanded by four teams under Bettman (the Predators, Thrashers, Blue Jackets and Wild); the Anaheim and Florida franchises predate him by a day. Some clubs wobble—there is a chasm between economic powerhouses like the Maple Leafs and black holes like the league-owned Coyotes—but expansion has added 100 or so jobs for a union that held the commissioner in such public disdain two months ago. The average league salary in Bettman's first full season was $558,000. Last year the average NHL salary was $2.45 million.
"If you're an employee and your institution's bottom line had gone up like that," former Sabres president Larry Quinn says, "you'd be looking at this leader and saying, 'Isn't he great?'"
"[Bettman will] go down as one of the greatest commissioners in pro sports," says Rodney Fort, professor of sports management at Michigan. "If you consider his job description"—he is employed by the owners, whose share of hockey-related revenue has increased from 25% to 50% since Lockout II—"he has been completely masterful."
So Bettman is not the worst commissioner in history. He probably rates as the best NHL commissioner-president, although that bar had been set so low, even he wouldn't be able to limbo under it (page 57). Love or loathe Bettman, before his arrival this well-heeled gentlemen's club masquerading as a league seemed a couple of VW Beetles shy of a clown college. In 1992 the NHL had fewer than 50 employees. Now there are more than 450. Hockey's Potemkin village became a solid structure beyond the bricks and mortar of the league's principal headquarters in New York City and of its satellite office in Toronto.
Bettman likes to say that a bell can't be unrung. And while he reflexively salutes hockey's history, the past does not seem to tug hard on his sleeve. From the moment the Adams, Patrick, Norris and Smythe divisions, and Wales and Campbell conferences, were relabeled with geographical names in 1993 to make them, in Bettman's words, "more accessible," most of the game's sepia-tinted memories were tucked on a high shelf with other hockey bric-a-brac—unless, of course, they could be monetized.
Every January since 2008 (in nonlockout years) the NHL vividly celebrates an al fresco past that never actually existed—at least for the professional game. The Winter Classic, embroidered by HBO's 24/7 series, already has become the most significant regular-season game in North American sports.
The concept for the outdoor extravaganza was poached from college hockey (Michigan--Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 6, 2001) and championed by league COO John Collins. Collins, hired by Bettman in '06, has nudged the NHL to focus on big events during the regular season. Considering the goals-per-game average under Bettman has leaked from 6.48 to 5.38 at week's end—post--Lockout II rule tweaks have not killed the Dead Puck Era—pizzazz is welcome. "The [U.S. is] looking for offensive hockey," Quinn says. "So is TV. People became fans because of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Gilbert Perreault."