There will be no cake with 20 little wafer hockey sticks or stick-shaped sparklers or 20 little licorice pucks to mark this day. Did you really expect NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to mark his 20th anniversary on the job in such an ostentatious manner? "I don't typically dwell on those types of things," Bettman told ESPN.com this week. And so instead of a grand celebration of two decades as commissioner of the most unique (if not the most difficult) pro sports league to manage, we start instead with a bathroom story. Brian Burke went to work for Gary Bettman in the old league offices in Manhattan in the fall of 1993, a few months after Bettman took office as commissioner. One day Burke went into the bathroom and found Bettman picking up paper towels from the floor. Burke joked with his boss that there was actually someone whose job it was to look after that mess. Bettman whirled on Burke and asked if he knew what time that person started work. No. Burke did not know. That person came in after 5 p.m., and so until that time, anyone who came into the league office to do business with the NHL was going to use this bathroom, and Bettman wanted it to be clean, the commissioner explained. It was a moment that even now, 20 years later, resonates with Burke, who moved on to run teams in Vancouver, Anaheim (where he won a Stanley Cup in 2007) and, most recently, in Toronto. "He's just so bright and such a good leader," said Burke. Bettman is not given to introspection, at least not public introspection, so whatever he remembers of his first day on the job, Feb. 1, 1993, he keeps to himself. Several days after taking the post, he would preside over his first All-Star Game, the last such game held at the historic Montreal Forum, and he recalled the excitement of that event and of the goals he and the owners set for themselves. "I know that there were things we wanted to accomplish in terms of growing and stabilizing the game," he said. At the time, there were 24 teams in the NHL and total revenues were in the $400 million range. Glenn Healy, a former player and prominent member of the union both as a player and after his retirement, recalled that when Bettman took over, the New York Islanders' team payroll was $5 million. Today, there are 30 teams, and last season revenues topped the $3 billion mark, with an average player salary of $2.4 million. When Healy thinks of the commissioner and his two decades on the job, there is one overriding impression. "Well, I think he's made a lot of players a lot of money," Healy said. NBA commissioner David Stern wasn't surprised that the NHL's governors hired his longtime friend, and he is likewise unsurprised that Bettman remains at the helm two decades later. Although NHL officials explored various replacements for outgoing -- and deposed -- NHL commissioner Gil Stein, Stern said he knew that the NHL would need someone who knew the ins and outs of a professional sports league and that Bettman was the man to fill that void. "I told the NHL they would come back to him," Stern said. Stern, 70, took over his job exactly nine years before Bettman took his post with the NHL. "And I still think of him as a kid," Stern admitted. "But the kid is no longer a kid." In the spring of 1994, Healy was part of a New York Rangers squad that won a Stanley Cup. He recalled the team's visit to the White House the following year, after the first of the three lockouts that would mark Bettman's tenure as commissioner. Healy has a picture of then-President Bill Clinton joking around with Rangers captain Mark Messier. Off to the side of the frame is the new commissioner, his hands in his pockets. At the time it might have been a question of, "Hey, who's that guy?" Healy said. Not anymore.
Bettman still getting the job done
ESPN | Jan 31