Today marks the 30th anniversary of Gary Bettman becoming the NHL’s first commissioner. It’s a big milestone, one that puts Bettman ahead of legendary president Frank Calder’s 26 years and within range of Clarence Campbell’s 33.
Even that doesn’t do his term justice — given the ever-expanding size of the league and the shifting landscape of today’s pro sports world, Bettman’s reign long ago surpassed any of his predecessors in terms of complexity. He’s the most influential figure in the history of the NHL, and it’s not close.
Influential, sure. But has that influence been a positive one for the league and its fans? That’s a more complicated question.
To get to an answer, let’s begin at the beginning. On Bettman’s first official day on the job back on Feb. 1, 1993, the league was unsteadily lurching its way into a new era. Many teams were struggling financially, the games were needlessly violent and often uncompetitive, and the league had just been through a brief but jarring midseason players’ strike. In America at least, hockey was undoubtedly a niche sport that often seemed in danger of being left behind.
There are no two ways about it — Bettman inherited a mess. Compared to what the NHL was when Bettman walked through the door, the state of today’s league makes his tenure looks like an unqualified success.
But that hardly seems like the right way to judge his work. By the early ’90s, the bar for NHL leadership had been set so low that virtually any halfway competent executive could have stepped over it. If representing an upgrade on Gil Stein is good enough, then sure, hand Bettman his A-plus and be done with it. Most of us would like to aim a little higher.
So instead of comparing Bettman to what had come before, let’s take the admittedly trickier approach of measuring him against what might have been. Is the NHL that we have now the best we could do? Have hockey fans been well-served by the Bettman era?
Some seem to think so. You’ll often hear Bettman’s tenure defended with two simple words: record revenues. Today’s NHL is making far more money than ever before, the argument goes, and maybe more than they ever dreamed possible back in 1993.
That’s certainly true. But do you know what other sports have achieved record revenues over the last 30 years? Virtually all of them. Between soaring TV deals, publicly funded buildings packed with luxury boxes, an explosion in corporate sponsorship and any number of brand-new revenue streams, the last three decades have seen money pour into the world of sports at rates that border on the obscene. It’s not an exaggeration to say it would have been literally impossible for the NHL not to have achieved “record revenues” in this environment. If your goal is to defend the commissioner, just pointing at the bottom line and declaring case closed isn’t good enough.