Helene Elliott: Gary Bettman doesn't care if fans hate him. Why his NHL reign has lasted 30 years.

Helene Elliott, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Hockey

Gary Bettman made a name for himself in the 1980s as the NBA's general counsel and third-in-command, the sharp, young lawyer who created the league's salary cap. Working alongside Commissioner David Stern, Bettman helped stabilize the NBA and transform it into a star-centric league watched by a global audience.

Still, it was a surprise when the NHL, seeking a chief executive who could get them a salary cap and revenue boost, landed on Bettman. He wasn't born into hockey or part of its old boys' network. He was from Queens, N.Y., not Canada.

"When I first heard about it, I sent the guy a puck and I heard he spent all day at his desk trying to figure out how to open it up," said Pat Williams, then general manager of the NBA's Orlando Magic.

Bettman isn't warm and fuzzy. He can be haughty, alienating the fans whose interests he claimed to be protecting when he locked players out three times during labor disputes.

Spots of color flame in his cheeks when he stubbornly defends what seems indefensible, such as his contortions to keep the Coyotes in Arizona at a tiny college rink and being unmoved by studies that have found links between repeated head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in autopsies of more than a dozen NHL players.

Yet Bettman is smart. Very smart. He figured out how to open that puck and stretch the reach of a sport that doesn't translate well to TV and has little tradition in many areas of the U.S. The longest-serving commissioner in the four major North American sports leagues, Bettman on Wednesday will celebrate 30 years on the job. He turned 70 last summer but has no retirement plans.


"Like birthdays, it's just a number," Bettman said. "Because everybody's having me do it, I do reflect on the fact that I've been at this a while, and I continue to be excited and energized by what I do."

His tenure has been marked by a mixed bag of innovations. Remember the Fox glow puck? He also agreed to TV contracts with obscure networks before the current profitable deal with ESPN and Turner. He hit on a winner with outdoor games that appeal to nostalgia. He wisely copied the NBA's draft lottery and fan-friendly All-Star weekend and was an early adapter to social media and digital technology. During his watch the NHL adopted shootouts and three-on-three play in overtime during the regular season, adding drama but distorting the standings. Many Canadians despise him for Americanizing their game, but he devised a program to aid Canada-based teams when currency disparities handicapped them.

League revenues, about $400 million when he began, were around $5.3 billion last season. Digital advertising boards introduced this season will pad revenues, although those ads are distracting when they change. Franchise values have soared: Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski paid $113.25 million for the Kings in 1995, and Forbes valued the franchise at $1.3 billion last year. Vegas paid $500 million to join the NHL in 2017. A Seattle group paid $650 million in 2021 to become the league's 32nd team, but additional expansion is on hold.

Growth is Bettman's hallmark. So is confrontation.


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