Gary Bettman is the most hated man in hockey

Gary Bettman doesn’t give a damn what you think about him. That’s why he’s exactly what hockey needs.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI/Getty Images)

If Gary Bettman had a Canadian fan club, you could count its membership with seven fingers—one for each northern NHL team owner. Everyone else seems to hold the National Hockey League commissioner personally responsible for everything that’s wrong with hockey: the ballooning salaries, the glowing puck, the extortionate ticket prices, the Leafs’ inability to win, the player concussions and, yes, that $20 beer. Since taking the reins atop the league two decades ago, he’s been such a polarizing figure in this country that it’s often difficult to separate fact from fiction, reality from Internet insanity. Is “hate” a strong enough word when every time you step foot in a hockey rink you’re showered with thousands of angry boos?

Now, with hockey’s latest labour showdown grinding perilously close to delaying or—Lord Stanley forbid—cancelling the upcoming NHL season, web forums, talk radio and sports media outlets are being flooded with anti-Bettman bile. He’s portrayed as hockey’s Dr. Evil, issuing decrees about our game from his Manhattan lair with little regard for tradition or the game’s hallowed place in Canada’s national identity.

In his new book, The Instigator: How Gary Bettman Remade the League and Changed the Game Forever, author Jonathon Gatehouse surprises by casting Bettman in a strikingly different light. The book chips away at the commissioner’s cartoonish image and argues that Bettman has gotten a bad rap. Gatehouse, a Maclean’s national correspondent who has followed the commissioner’s career from the beginning, argues that Bettman has engineered a stunning turnaround of a league that was, until he got his hands on it, a dysfunctional, money-losing mess.

As an American who didn’t grow up playing the game, Bettman has made an easy target—right from his first day on the job, Feb. 1, 1993. The Toronto Star headline read: “Bettman’s NHL era begins: ‘Everything is under review.’” In the following article, Bettman talked about changes he might want to make, singling out fighting, the two-line pass, and icing rules as areas of concern. He also talked about the need to make hockey action easier for non-fans to follow on TV. As Gatehouse writes, “It was one thing to be a hockey outsider, but it was quite another to be seen as an arriviste trying to remake the sport to suit the needs of an audience that didn’t yet exist.”

The idea of Bettman as a hockey outsider has long-fed the gaping maw that is the Canadian inferiority complex. Gatehouse says it’s “that no one born south of the border can truly understand or appreciate our shared passion. For the hard-core hockey types—including the media, who get paid to be in perpetual frenzy about the sport’s health—there’s the conceit that only ‘insiders,’ steeped in lore and custom, know what it takes to make it work on and off the ice.”

Hockey is a delicate dance, balancing business with matters of the heart. We want our teams to win, but we don’t want to pay too much for tickets. We want the best players, but we criticize multi-year, multimillion-dollar deals doled out to 20-somethings. Reconciling the passion for hockey (the game) with the harsh realities of hockey (the business) has always been a thankless—maybe impossible—job. Bettman’s secret seems to be that he’s fine being everyone’s punching bag, as long as he gets his way.

It’s much easier to hate one guy—who just happens to be phenomenally good at his job—than all 30 team owners. But the truth is, the owners are the bosses, not the other way around. Every labour negotiation, every rule change, every franchise move must have the owners’ approval. The commissioner’s power arises from his ability to maintain the peace among such a diverse and often volatile collection of owners. According to Gatehouse, “A key to Bettman’s success is his understanding that the job is as much a lion tamer’s act as anything else, and one should never enter the cage without both a whip and a chair.” That realization led to him negotiating into his own contract an exclusive authority to arbitrate and resolve disputes between owners, establish committees, change the schedule and interpret league rules.

The results speak for themselves. Since he took over as commissioner, league revenues have surged from US$400 million to $3.3 billion. Then there’s the new 10-year, $2-billion television deal with NBC and its cable channels, as well as record sponsorship deals with the likes of Molson Coors, Honda, Reebok and Cisco Systems.

Many Canadian fans began their hate affair with Bettman in 1995. That’s when the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche. The following year the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes. Player salaries were growing by leaps and bounds, and the league’s smallest market teams couldn’t keep up financially. Bettman was blamed for pushing his own Sunbelt agenda—moving teams to larger markets in the southern U.S.—but Gatehouse says the truth is, Bettman worked hard for both the overall health of the league and its Canadian teams. John Loewen, the former chair of Manitoba Entertainment Complex, the local Winnipeg group that was denied a last-minute purchase of the team, now tells Gatehouse that Bettman wasn’t really the bad guy. “I think to a certain degree at the time we all misunderstood Bettman’s role…I sort of arrived at the conclusion that really what he was doing was speaking for the owners. This is what the owners wanted.”

In fact, by the late 1990s, it was Bettman who was lobbying Ottawa and the provinces to help save the remaining Canadian teams, all of which, save for the Maple Leafs, were struggling. In 1998, the Vancouver Canucks were drawing fewer than 12,000 fans per game. The Montreal Canadiens paid $11 million a year in property tax on their arena—more than all 21 American teams combined. “The U.S. clubs enjoyed strong government support—tax holidays, sweetheart lease deals for state-of-the-art rinks,” writes Gatehouse. And Bettman argued hard that the “best way to level the playing field was to extend the same type of special treatment above the 49th parallel.”

“All you have to do is spend time there and you feel it,” Bettman tells Gatehouse. “How the game brings the people and the community together…. I mean, hockey’s on the back of the $5 bill.” Gatehouse writes that Bettman had been “shaken at the intensity of the grief and anger over the departure of the Nordiques and the Jets. And it was clear to him that having another franchise head south was the kind of blow the league might never recover from. The new league imperative was to do whatever it took to keep the remaining teams in place.”

When the Jets returned to Winnipeg last year, Bettman was at the team’s first game. He sat in the lobby of the MTS Centre for a local TV interview. “By the time he takes his seat, the lobby is reverberating,” writes Gatehouse. “Not with curses, but his name: ‘Gar-ee. Gar-ee. Gar-ee.’” Fans jockeyed to get their pictures taken with him giving the thumbs-up and grinning.

Today that smile is gone. The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NHL Players’ Association expires on Sept. 15. The negotiations may prove to be the most contentious of Bettman’s tenure, which is saying something. Back in 1994–95, then-union head Bob Goodenow got the better deal by waiting out the owners, then offering just enough to let them save face and not lose a season. In the rematch a decade later, Bettman cancelled an entire season and was able to institute the toughest salary cap in pro sports. Gatehouse calls current NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, “the most experienced bargainer in all of the big leagues” who kept “a far richer and more powerful set of owners at bay for three decades—baseball remains the only major league sport without player compensation limits.”

In a Sept. 3 column, Montreal Gazette writer Jack Todd compared Bettman to a “bully neighbour” who takes “your house, your wife, your kids, your cars and your dog”—then later pretends he’s being a nice guy by letting you keep the dog.

It’s the kind of hyperbolic vitriol that has propagated the lasting image of Bettman as some kind of cackling puppet master, hell-bent on destroying Canada’s game. It’s significant that Fehr, the union head, is smart enough to know the difference between the message and the messenger. “If you put me in Gary Bettman’s job tomorrow and you put him over here, the positions wouldn’t change very much,” Fehr tells Gatehouse. “It’s the players and owners who are calling the shots and defining the issues, not the commissioner or executive director of the union.”

However the current dispute ends, the odds are that Bettman will continue to hear more than his fair share of boos. According to him, that’s fine—as long as his bosses are happy. “The fact is, when you are in the public eye this much, people come to their own understanding and beliefs without knowing you,” he tells Gatehouse. “They believe what they want to believe.”